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!


Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The costs of a crap boss


We all know how unpleasant it can be to have a crap boss.  

Turns out it's not merely painful, it's expensive.

Looks like having a crap boss, even for a short while, means not only that you earn less now but you may earn less for ever...


5.  Supervisors and Performance Management Systems by Anders Frederiksen, Lisa B. Kahn, Fabian Lange  -  #23351 (LS)

Abstract:

Supervisors occupy central roles in production and performance monitoring.  We study how heterogeneity in performance evaluations across supervisors affects employee and supervisor careers and firm outcomes using data on the performance system of a Scandinavian service sector firm.  We show that supervisors vary widely in how they rate subordinates of similar quality.  To understand the nature of this heterogeneity, we propose a principal-agent model according to which supervisors can differ in their ability to elicit output from subordinates or in their taste for leniency when rating subordinates.  The model also allows for variation in how informed firms are about this heterogeneity.  Within the context of this model, we can discern the nature of the heterogeneity across supervisors and how informed firms are about this heterogeneity by relating observed supervisor heterogeneity in ratings to worker, supervisor, and firm outcomes

We find that subordinates are paid significantly more, and their pay is more closely aligned with performance, when they are matched to a high-rating supervisor.  We also find that higher raters themselves are paid more and that the teams managed by higher raters perform better on objective performance measures.  This evidence suggests that supervisor heterogeneity stems, at least in part, from real differences in managerial ability and that firms are at least partially informed about these differences.  We conclude by quantifying how important heterogeneity in supervisor type is for workers' careers.  For a typical worker, matching to a high rater (90th percentile) relative to a low rater (10th percentile) for just one year results in an increase in the present discounted value of earnings equivalent to 7-14% of an annual salary.




Monday, 5 June 2017

Film Reviews 2017 - #8 Groundhog Day


1.

We’ve reached number eight in the 2017 series: Groundhog Day.  This is a film, obviously, that we have all already seen.  (And, perhaps, this is a review that you have already read.) Groundhog Day is a 1993 film about a disgruntled weatherman, played by Bill Murray, who finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, repeatedly living through the same day over and over and over again.

I have, obviously, already seen the film Groundhog Day over and over and over again, so the clever thing to do – again, obviously - would be to review the film without actually watching it again.

Such was my thinking as I drove to the Hay festival on the weekend that should have been the occasion (according to the self-imposed schedule set back in January) when I watched Groundhog Day.  Again.

2.

The notion of endlessly repeating something is not new, of course.  In fact, endless repetition is one of the most basic notions that we have.  Go back as far as you like into recorded human culture and you encounter fundamental conceptualisations of circularity and repetition: think yin and yang in the east, or the wheel at the heart of the tao, or the ouroboros in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece.

(It’s probably to do with the stars.  Throughout pre-history our forebears encountered endless turbulence at ground level, while forever unchanging above were the ceaselessly rotating lights in the sky.  We watched and we measured (well, the priests and their ilk did the measuring) (and invented magic and belief, then mathematics and science) and we discovered that everything changes, yet everything remains the same; everything goes around in a circle and comes back to the beginning again.)

Circularity and repetition continue to attract intense philosophical attention.  The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has achieved cult status (in certain continental philosophical circles, at least) with a philosophy (considered utterly at odds with the entire prevailing western canon) in which everything (and I mean everything - space, time, mind, maths, society, words) consists of some sort of sphere (or, if there are lots together, foam).  Douglas Hofstadter (he of Godel, Escher and Bach) proposes that consciousness itself is astrange loopthat holds itself up as an inherent feature of its being and, in so holding itself, comprises consciousness.

Roberto Calasso, meanwhile, explores the connections between ancient and modern conceptualisations by building from ancient Greek mythology and alighting on the notion of the ring, the bracelet or the clasp as a fundamental metaphor that connects our sense of self (I am that which is held together as me) with our sense of society (that group or set of groups that is held together) with our sense of thought (stories and theories all comprise sets of ideas that hold together).

3.

The best Greek myth about all this concerns Sisyphus Sisyphus was a king of Ephyra who was, by all accounts, a very naughty boy and who was eventually caught and punished by top god Zeus.  Zeus condemned him to push a big rock up a steep hill – but when the rock gets to the top of the hill it rolls all the way back down again.  Sisyphus has to push it up again; and it rolls down again; and he has to push it back up again; and it rolls back again; and again and again and again and again forever and ever.

(In case the unbearable, incomprehensible agony of this situation doesn’t grab you with sufficient immediacy, recall instead the moment when you realised the plight of the AI inside the wee gizmo at the end of the Christmas episode of Black Mirror when the man sets the dial to 1,000 years per minute…)

To understand this properly it’s important to realise that Sisyphus is not merely a king – he is a human being.  He is not a god.   There are other people (for example Prometheus) who get punished for all eternity by Zeus, but they are gods or in some other way mythological.  As a human, Sisyphus represents humans generally.  He was greedy and deceitful and murderous and generally unpleasant – but he was also cunning, resourceful, clever, crafty.  These latter attributes are the very skills upon which humanity’s success over the past few millennia has depended – and the former are the baggage we seem to bring with us.

So the story serves to remind us – as Albert Camus, arch nihilist and general miserable bastard, points out in his wonderful The Myth of Sisyphus - of our bleak condition: no matter how much work we put in, no matter how clever we are, we end up getting nowhere.  We end up exactly where we started.

So what’s the point?

4.

Which gets us back to Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day is a 1993 film about a disgruntled weatherman, played by Bill Murray, who finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, repeatedly living through the same day over and over and over again… except that – for one thing – it’s not actually the same day (since, whilst it is always 2nd February, the Murray character behaves differently every day, so the day’s events are always different) and – for another, and more importantly – (spoiler alert, ho ho) at the end and eventually he wakes up in the next day.

How does that happen?

Actually – how does anything happen?  Isn’t that a question that lies behind even the fundamental metaphors from ancient eastern and western cosmologies I mentioned a moment ago?

Well, there are only two possibilities really: either things change because it’s an inherent feature of existence, or of the things that exist, that things are as they are and it is mere necessity that things change; or it’s because it’s just random, just a nothing and a something, things change at random, by pure chance.

(In case this blunt assertion is insufficient to persuade you, try Democritus, who said this first and who, some two and a half thousand years before it was confirmed by others, formulated the atomic theory of the universe.)

So is it chance or necessity that there is a book called ‘Chance and Necessity’ by the Nobel-prize winning biologist Jacques Monod, a book about the way biological evolution occurs within the framework of a conceptual [and mathematically tractable] space based on the interaction of chance and necessity) and a book that has been on my wish list for simply donkeys’ years?  Is it chance or necessity that a first edition of the book ‘Chance and Necessity’ (a first edition! for just £6!) presented itself to me on the very day I had been wondering how I would conduct a review of the film Groundhog Day (a 1993 film about a disgruntled weatherman, played by Bill Murray, who finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, repeatedly living through the same day over and over and over again…) without watching it again?

Is it chance or necessity that the opening quotation in the Foreword to ‘Chance and Necessity’ reads:

“At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning towards his rock, in that slight pivoting, he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which became his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death.  Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see, who knows that the night has no end, is still on the go.  The rock is still rolling.

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again.  But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks.  He, too, concludes that all is well.  This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile.  Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world.  The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

These are the closing paragraphs from The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus.

8.

Hang on a minute.  Albert Camus, being optimistic?  What’s that about?  I thought he was the arch nihilist, the miserable bastard?  What’s he doing finding hope in Sisyphus’s awful torment?

And isn’t this the same optimism that we encounter – experience – at the end of Groundhog Day?  At the end of Groundhog Day – a 1993 film about a disgruntled weatherman, played by Bill Murray, who finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, repeatedly living through the same day over and over and over again… – our hero achieves redemption.

This is – I think – why the film has endured, why it has achieved the cultural status of ‘classic’: it is an updated, ancient myth.  In the ancient myth - and the ancient mind – there was no prospect of redemption, there was simply fate; in the modern mind, we have autonomy and we can be saved, and we need myths to tell us so.

This is emphatically not a Christian myth (though Christianity has made an exceptionally good fist of appropriating the notion of redemption to itself).  The redemption offered by Christianity remains an externally authorised redemption; it is God who saves.

But in Camus’s image it is Sisyphus who finds his own salvation, who figures out an accommodation with his plight; and in Groundhog Day (a 1993 film about a disgruntled weatherman, played by Bill Murray, who finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, repeatedly living through the same day over and over and over again…) our hero figures something out – learns something – and makes progress as a result.

And here we reach the kernel.  The myth-update in Groundhog Day is the Enlightenment It is the idea that we can learn.  And by learning we can progress.  The universe is not an endlessly repeated cycle, empty of meaning, because we can learn, and the learning is a process of climbing what Iain M Banks calls (in Matter) a cliff-face: there is a ridge up there, not a single peak; and there are many ways up, not just one (or even two).  The physical universe may proceed in a way remarkably like the endless cycle imagined by the ancients; but the mind is somehow at right angles to the physical universe and there are opportunities aplenty to climb.

Groundhog Day is a 1993 film about a disgruntled weatherman, played by Bill Murray, who finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, repeatedly living through the same day over and over and over again… It is a film about a man who, like all of us, wants to be better than he is.  Groundhog Day is a great film because, in its humorous and well-crafted way, it tells the story of a man who achieves this ambition.  Groundhog Day is a truly classic film because it provides a truly modern myth - and, as a result, gives us hope.


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.





Notes

- 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.