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.