Saturday, March 30, 2019

Review of "Fisherman's Friends"

Clearly intended as a community-oriented feelgood sort of film, with roughty-toughty fisherman singing shanties as they haul in their nets. Their local culture seems to be devoid of every other type of music except authentic folk, which already identifies this as a fairy tale...every time I visit a pub in a place like that the singer is always country and western.

Anyway, it's nice enough, and pleasant to look at, but at least half an hour too long, and with just a bit too many plot elements for its weight.

Watched at the Everyman Cinema in Muswell Hill.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Review of 'Under the Rainbow'

Actually a quirky French romcom sort of film, with lots of fairy tale allusions and allegories. A bit of Little Red Riding Hood, some Sleeping Beauty, and several others. I was a bit confused at first because there are really a lot of characters, and some seem to have multiple relationships with each other. But it was actually quite funny once I got the hang of it, with lots of nice images.

Watched on BBC iPlayer via Chromecast.

Review of 'Lord Malquist and Mr Moon' by Tom Stoppard

He should definitely stick to plays. This is a pile of crap, and I gave up after 30 pages. This still has the remaindered sticker on it (reduced from £6.99 to £1.99) and it's going straight to the charity shop.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Review of 'The Colour' by Rose Tremain

Another fine novel from Rose Tremain. Great characters, nicely constructed, beautiful nature descriptions, a good feel for historical context. Not a happy feel-good sort of book - lots of unhappiness - but no less good for that.

Lots of nice detail about the mechanics of a gold rush, and something about the presence of Chinese migrants in it.

I think it's particularly good in representing the other-worldly feeling of New Zealand, which I remember from my short trip there in the late 1980s. Hard to characterize exactly, but I think it comes from NZ having a temperate latitude much like North Western Europe, but very different species of animals and plants...so it feels like a weird, imperfect copy of Britain.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Review of 'Cold War'

Beautiful, well paced drama (romantic drama?) set in post-war Poland, and then post-war Europe, and featuring a young woman singer and her sometime piano-playing teacher and lover. Lots of atmosphere, and shots that look like they have been meticulously composed by a visual artist.

It is a bit Cold War, though - it really emphasises the oppressiveness and bureaucratic hypocrisy of the East versus the freedom of the West. When our hero escapes and ends up in Paris the first scene shows him playing cool jazz in a band with black players...it's unsaid that those black players would have been in Paris to escape segregation and racial violence back home. And also that this 'free' Paris was the capital of a country still practising violent militarised colonialism across the Mediterranean, or that in this very city hundreds of Algerian protesters were about to be murdered in a single day by a racist police force headed by a Vichy-era collaborator and torturer later convicted of crimes against humanity. When people 'chose' the West or the East they were choosing a lesser evil, not the good guys vs. the bad.

This doesn't detract from the film, of course. I was a bit put out by the ending, which didn't seem to me to fit with what had gone before, but I'll refrain from a spoiler.

Watched at Lansdown Film Club as part of Stroud Film Festival.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Review of 'The White Crow'

I enjoyed this Rudolph Nuryev biopic (well, really a story about the events leading up to his defection, with some earlier background) more than I expected to...film is obviously the right way to enjoy ballet, which up until now has bored me rigid, but seemed really beautiful and inspiring in this. Ralph Fiennes is great with his melancholy expressions, and I thought the art direction - the haircuts, the furniture, the sets - was great. My, didn't everybody smoke a lot?

I did have a little doze in the middle, but I thought it was quite enjoyable.

One small gripe - did the flashbacks to the earlier period in the USSR really have to be in black and white?

Watched at the Everyman Cinema in Muswell Hill.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Review of 'The Aftermath'

A romantic drama set in Hamburg and environs immediately after the end of the war, amidst ruins and some diehard Nazi resistance to the British occupation forces. Surprisingly good, especially in the light of the bad reviews, and the fact that the female lead is Keira Knightley - though she is good in this, because her rather wooden style suits the emotionally constricted character she is playing.

Watching it I felt once again that the trauma of what British people suffered in WW2 has been largely unacknowedged, compared to what is understood to have happened to other Europeans in that war, or even the British in WW1. I'm thinking particularly of the civilians who survived the bombing - nowadays anyone who gets their phone stolen is offered counselling (at least I was a few years ago), but those who went through every night not knowing if they would survive were expected to pick themselves up and get on with it, during the war and afterwards.

Also struck by what a good job the Allies made of re-making Germany, compared to what a bad job they made of re-making Iraq. Has anyone written about this?

Watched at the Everyman Cinema - once again offering free cocktails. This is obviously the future of the cinema experience.

Review of 'A Gentleman in Moscow' by Amor Towles

I really enjoyed this book, and then I watched the video of the author speaking about it, and now I feel a bit like I've been had, and that I shouldn't have liked it as much as I did.

It's set in Russia, and the eponymous hero is a very sympathetic and charming ex-noble who is sentenced to life imprisonment in a luxury hotel. He's not executed after the revolution by the victorious Bolsheviks because he'd earlier written a poem that inspired the revolutionary generation of 1905. The book is about how he makes the best of life in the hotel - the friends (and enemies) he makes, but also what he eats and drinks - over almost forty years.

It's beautifully written, and it's hard not to like the Count, who is a really nice person, kind and thoughtful and not at all arrogant...and I suppose that's my problem. It's an anti-Bolshevik, anti-socialist book - one of the themes is the way that hierarchy and patronage are inevitable features of any society. It's not as if I am a big fan of the Bolsheviks, let alone of how things turned out with their revolution. But there is not even a hint that not all was well with the Tsarist regime in Russia, though there is a tiny suggestion that the immediate post-revolutionary period was at least fluid and exciting. Almost all the actual Communists in the book are horrid, and most of the nice people are their victims. And I sort of feel that I've been had, that I've been seduced by an aristocrat with his delightful manners and his wit...learning that Amory Towles is a former investment banker makes it worse.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

It’s easy to laugh at conspiracy theorists. They often seem like harmless nutters. It’s good fun to swap stories about people who believe that the moon landings were faked, the Vatican is hiding information that proves Christianity is false, the US government is concealing the technologies it has obtained from crashed alien UFOs, or that big business is keeping the wraps on perpetual motion machines, water engines and everlasting light bulbs.

Conspiracy theories tend to share a number of themes. These include the involvement of the rich and powerful, and a cover-up of important truths that would undermine wealth and power. Apparently disparate phenomena are actually connected. The crimes of the powerful are not just evil and self-interested, but lurid and repellent; they don’t just have sex orgies, they have orgies involving satanic rituals and kidnapped children. And despite the fact that the rich and powerful have successfully covered up whatever it is they have done (sometimes for hundreds of years), they’ve inadvertently left clues that have allowed a small band of fearless and dedicated investigators to discover the truth and to publicise it, if only anyone would listen…

No-one illustrates this better than David Icke, the former footballer and sports commentator turned New Age guru turned conspiracy theorist. Icke reveals the existence of a massive, long-running conspiracy that has lasted for thousands of years. This involves most politicians that you’ve ever heard of, the British and several other royal families, plus conspiracy favourites the United Nations, the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Rothschild family, the World Bank, and so on.

Unsurprisingly he is obsessed with Georg Soros, who he cites as a ‘kingpin’ of the Deep State, the New World Order, and part of the ‘motley crew’ of Zionists and others responsible for fake news and worldwide protests. When Icke presents he uses a giant portrait of Soros, unconvincingly photo-shopped to look like he has reptile eyes.

As well as mixing in some ‘alternative medicine’ stuff, and support for ‘free speech’ for Holocaust denial, Icke cites the notorious anti-semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a source, though he claims that the references in the book to Jews are actually coded clues to the real conspirators, an alien race of shapeshifting lizards who have interbred with humans. Well, it makes a change from coded references to Jews.

So mockery and amused tolerance seems an appropriate response. Why dignify this mish-mash of unbelievable untruths and shameless plagiarism from pulp science fiction by treating it seriously? Some don’t. ‘Rationalist’ debunkers characterise Icke as more nutty than antisemitic, taking at face value his coy and half-hearted denials of antisemitism, including references to ‘Rothschild Zionism’ and assertions that it’s only ‘some’ Jews that are involved in the conspiracy.

Nevertheless, it’s a more significant phenomenon than many on the left recognize. Icke rakes in millions from his books, and draws large audiences at his rally-like talks. It’s easy to assume that no-one with half a brain could be taken in by any of this; the rise of Trump should make us aware that this is not so. It’s always been possible to live in a parallel ‘cultural universe’, refusing to admit as valid mainstream assertions and beliefs. Frankly, that’s what many of us on the left have of necessity done for years, though thankfully not with the same content. The internet has made this easier, as have changes in the structure of the mass media to allow for more explicitly partisan channels like Fox News. It’s easier than ever to construct an intellectual world in which you only see and hear hear evidence that corroborates your core beliefs. The rest of us stay sealed off from these worlds.

Or perhaps we aren’t. In December 2018 Alice Walker, the distinguished Black author and activist, cited Icke’s book “And the Truth Shall Set You Free,” as ‘on her nightstand’ in an interview with the New York Times, and subsequently defended the recommendation and praised Icke as “brave enough to ask the questions others fear to ask, and to speak his own understanding of the truth wherever it might lead.”

It’s not hard to find other examples of people praising Icke for his ‘brave’ views on Israel and Palestine; a few minutes with a search engine will turn up lots of them. Sometimes such praise is embedded in other stuff that’s critical of American imperialism, the banks, and the super-rich. Surprisingly, although Icke belongs on the lunatic fringe of the far right, it’s not all that uncommon to find left-wing friends sharing some of his blander, more mainstream pronouncements. (I note in passing that Icke appears to despise Tommy Robinson as an agent of Israel and ‘Zionist Terrorism’.)

Perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising. There is no clear boundary between conspiracy theories and...well, theories about conspiracies. On the left we understand that the media often lies and distorts to serve political ends, and that the rich and powerful cover up their crimes. We know that states agencies really do engage in clandestine activities. Lots of things that sound rather like conspiracy theories have turned out to be true, including some of the weirdest and most fantastic; try searching for ‘Rawalpindi Experiments’, or Project MK Ultra. I don’t know of any compelling evidence that either the CIA or Mossad carried out the 9-11 attacks, but there really have been false flag operations carried out by the US, the British and Israel (and other states). For the most part the rich and powerful don’t manage their domination of political institutions through secret societies and targeted assassinations, but sometimes they do - spend a little time researching the history of the ‘Propaganda Due’ (P2) organisation in Italy and elsewhere.

Engagement with opposition to the actions of Israel seems to lead inexorably to this murky domain. The Israeli state really has often engaged in clandestine operations, both at home and abroad. Israel, like other states, including the Saudis - maintains lobbyists in Washington, Westminster, Brussels and a host of other capitals. There are also networks of non-state organisations that act in support of Israel and/or political parties and movements within Israel - especially the settlers and the extreme right. Many of the participants in these networks are Jews (though in the US Evangelical Christians are increasingly important within pro-Israel lobby organisations). So it’s not too hard for critics of Israel and Zionism to use language and images that either derives from, or overlaps with, classical antisemitic conspiracy theories. And when they come across someone else who appears to share their antipathy to Israel’s machinations, and who is persecuted or attacked for their views...well, why not click that ‘share’ button?

So where does this leave us? What do we do about our friends and comrades who think that Icke’s “exposes” of Zionism and “the elite” actually sound quite sensible? Well, you can start by telling them about Icke’s views on other things - the reptile overlords, or ‘alternative medicine’, or free speech for Holocaust deniers. But - as Alice Walker’s refusal to disavow Icke suggests, don’t get your hopes up. People come into the left in all sorts of ways, and from different directions. Lots of young people have never heard of The Protocols, and may not understand why someone who appears to be against the banks, the ‘elite’ and the US government may nevertheless be an enemy rather than a friend. In the end there’s no substitute for a proper, class-based analysis of wealth and power; in the short term it’s necessary, if nonetheless exhausting, to keep pointing out the real allegiances of these false friends.





Monday, March 04, 2019

Review of 'Three Identical Strangers'

Documentary about the experiments on adopted-away twins (and, in the case of the main characters in the film, triplets) carried out by psychoanalyst researchers in conjunction with a Jewish adoption agency. There is a lot of anger on the part of the research subjects, because they were separated in early life and neither they nor their adoptive parents were told that they had siblings.

Research like this couldn't be done now, but I think the researchers at the time didn't have any sense at all that they had breached any ethical or moral boundary...though the extent to which they subsequently tried to keep what they'd done covered up suggests that they worked out pretty quickly that not everyone else would feel the same way.

As a film it's actually a bit long, with a lot of the developments being drawn out longer than necessary for the sake of the narrative. But it's compelling to watch.

Seen on All4 catch up.

Review of 'Tehran Taboo'

Striking animated film about contemporary Iranian life, with emphasis on what it's like to be a woman subject to the arbitrary regime of the Morality Police and the Revolutionary Guard, but also on the corruption and hypocrisy. Not an easy watch, and a bit slow to get going, but worth the effort.

Watched at Lansdown Film Club in Stroud.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Review of 'The Prairie Home Companion'

Shapeless Robert Altman film (his last) but quite good fun nevertheless. The radio station where Garrison Keillor does his rambling radio show has been taken over by evil unsentimental Texans, who are going to close the show and sell the theatre for a parking lot...even though it's beautiful and seems to be ram packed with people. So the cast get together for what is going to be their last show, and that show is what the film is...lots of cameo roles, rambling conversations, and lots of singing from Meryl Streep, Woody Harrelson, Lyndsay Lohan, etc. They must have had lots of fun making it, and it was easy to watch.

Watched on an old fashioned DVD player at Michael's cottage in Stibb, with a pre-HDMI scart connection.