Friday, January 30, 2015

Review of Selma

This is a great film to introduce people with no previous knowledge of the story of the US Civil Rights Movement. It captures the drama, the deep-seatedness of racism in the US South, the violence of the white backlash, the dignity and the near-miraculous self-restraint of the non-violent Black Civil Rights campaigners. It doesn’t cover the whole history of the movement but focuses on a specific moment – the campaign leading up to the Voting Rights Act, including the eponymous march from Selma, Alabama to state capital Montgomery.

It’s a drama not a documentary, and even though it’s not short it manages to touch on or hint at many of the issues. There is a brief reference to the divisions within the SNCC and between Martin Luther King’s SCLC and the SNCC – but we don’t really find out what this was about. We see that President LBJ is ostensibly sympathetic to King but keeps urging him to wait for voting rights – but we don’t see the extent to which LBJ was a prisoner of the pro-segregation Dixiecrats. In general LBJ seems to be vested with rather more dignity than he deserves. There is some stuff about MLK’s affairs and how the FBI tried to use illegally gathered surveillance of them to try to break up his marriage and thus harm the movement, but there is no attempt at any contemporary relevance – J Edgar Hoover just appears from time to time. 

Tim Roth plays a menacing Governor George Wallace brilliantly, though the epilogue doesn’t mention that Wallace had a late-in-life reconversion to anti-racism (remarkably, Wallace had started out something of a liberal, unsuccessfully running in a Democratic Primary with NAACP backing against a KKK-endorsed candidate).

It’s a really good film with lots of great acting and direction (though occasional slushy music jars) and despite the length does not drag. But I’ve got two issues.
Firstly, it’s American, so it wants a happy ending. Therefore we have to see the Civil Rights Movement as a successful struggle. I saw this as part of a Journey to Justice event, preceded by rather good speeches by among others Chi Onwurah MP, Baroness Helena Kennedy and Baron Herman Ousely, the point of which is about learning from the experience of the movement.

But I’m not at all sure that movement did produce a happy ending, in the Hollywood sense. It seems mean and nasty to say that it delivered for a small education minority of the African-American community but left most of them behind.  The quotation from Dorothy Zellner (a white radical SNCC staffer) "What they want is to let the Negro into the existing society, not to change it..."  seems apposite to me. It’s not that nothing changed, but it didn’t get all fixed in the way that Hollywood wants to imply. This of course has implications for Journey to Justice, because co-option is one of the lessons that future radical movements need to learn about.

The other issue is even trickier, about the tactics and strategy of non-violence. The film doesn’t pull any punches about this. Some of the less pleasant characters in the film point out to King that he while he requires non-violence of his followers, he is relying on a violent response for his enemies. Later on in discussions with the SNCC activists he says much the same himself – when there was no violent backlash, the cameras went away and the tactic failed. King is shown as shocked and pained by the brutality meted out to his followers, but we can’t quite shake the feeling that at some level he must have been relieved and even pleased.

So how to process this? Whether  or not the movement succeeded even according to its own measures, the tactic was clearly successful. It put pressure on the US Federal Government, which needed world public opinion on its side for its wars in Asia. But I can’t help thinking about how those marches have evolved into our own, sanctioned-route police-approved traipses, and whether we have fixated on the form of the public protest while losing all sight of way it is supposed to work. And also the opposite thought – what is the ethics of deliberately putting your supporters in harm’s way for the greater good? Under what circumstances is this permissible – when they know what you are doing? When they knowingly accept the risk? Or when?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review of 'Wild'

A film about the healing power of nature. Cheryl goes off the rails after her mother dies unexpectedly and suddenly of spine cancer. She sleeps around, she snorts and then shoots up heroin, she gets in with a bad crowd. A nice man rescues her, they get married, but she cheats on him, so they get divorced even though they are still friends. Then she decides to walk herself better by doing the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1100 mile hike from the Mexican to the Canadian border.

 The film is about the walk, the physical endurance it requires, and how it does end up healing her. It’s very beautiful, and occasionally scary – not the nature (as in the film 'Into the Wild', where it's the nature that ultimately kills the person who has sought it out), but the men she meets along the way. Sometimes they are overtly threatening, sometimes it’s just the sheer fact of her being alone and vulnerable. We see the men as she would see them, so even those who turn out to be OK in the end are quite frightening.

Two thoughts: one, the film was made much more poignant and moving for me because I watched it with my Mum, who herself had cancer of the spine when she was about 45 – the same age as Cheryl’s mum. But my Mum survived and has had all those extra years that Cheryl and her mother didn’t.
 Two, I was reminded of an observation that I think was by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian – that we think of nature as healing because being in it removes us from the dense world of signs and context that we are working so hard to interpret all the time. In the forest, things are what they seem to be – a tree just is a tree. Of course, that’s not true in films, because everything is only there because it carries some meaning; the fox that visits Cheryl represents her mother who went away and left her, the fast-flowing stream is a challenge to be overcome, and so on.

Still, a nice gentle, often funny, and thoughtful film.

The Dark Web at Cybersalon

To Cybersalon and this event, held in the delightfully grungy premises of advertising agency Digitalis in achingly cool Brick Lane. A young, educated audience – almost half women, and with a woman (Wendy Grossman) chairing, though very high beard density among the male members of the audience and no women on the panel. A strong contrast with the IoT event that I had attended in the morning, where almost everyone in the mainly government and corporate audience was over 40 and the 50 people in the room did not include a single woman.

Four presenters spoke briefly and clearly about internet privacy issues. Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos spoke about his new book The Dark Net, mainly about the sort of stuff that you can buy on The Silk Road 2.0 and how similar to conventional e-commerce sites the ‘dark’ stuff is. Sadly Dr Elena Martellozzo, a Criminologist at Middlesex University and specialist in sex offenders’ use of the internet and online child safety wasn’t able to make it, but Dr Gareth Owen, a cybersecurity and digital forensics researcher at University of Portsmouth spoke about his headline grabbing Dark Net study, mainly about how much Tor traffic (counted in a highly specific way) is to child-porn sites. There were two other speakers, both privacy geeks (in the nicest possible sense) and I’ll update their names later.

The general tenor of the comments from the latter two, and from Wendy Grossman, was that the right to privacy was absolute, that security services should be given no rights to surveillance, and that back doors into communications services would always be exploited by people even worse than the security services. The audience was much more evenly divided, and there were several comments to the effect that people would quite pleased for there to be surveillance of genuine terrorists. Jamie Bartlett argued for a sort of hopeless centrist position, saying on the one hand that the security services were giving the public what they wanted (without much reflection on why they wanted it) and on the other that electronic surveillance would become increasingly ineffective so that much more direct human intelligence (infiltration etc.) would be called for – he did rather call that ‘good police work’. There was also some good well-informed comment on the idea that it was OK to collect all this data, and to analyse it, as long as no human looked at it without proper legal sanction.

My problem with the whole discussion is this. I accept that there is a need for surveillance of real terrorists. I am pleased that the police eventually caught the neo-Nazi nail bomber, and if reading his emails or his Facebook posts would have caught him quicker then I’d be even more pleased, and some people would be more alive than they are.

But I don’t trust the actual agencies. I think they are as likely to consider people like me and my friends as a threat to the state, and they often don’t pay much attention to right-wing conspirators and terrorists. I don’t trust the people who are supposed to monitor and manage them either, who as we have seen have really funny ideas about human rights and national security. Me encrypting my emails and using a VPN doesn’t do anything to solve this fundamental political problem of how to have a secret security service in a democratic state. What to do about the ‘deep state’ has been a perennial problem for reformist or social democratic governments whenever they are elected, and I wish the newly elected Syriza government the best of luck with this.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Review of 'Whiplash'

This is one of those films about triumph over adversity through persistence and determination. A young man goes to a top music school and wants to become one of the best Jazz drummers. An instructor at the school, in the manner celebrated in a thousand drill-sergeant movies, treats all of the young students very harshly to toughen them up and provide them with paradoxical motivation.

In the formulaic versions of this story some students fall by the wayside but our hero only becomes more determined, until at last he (or occasionally she) proves themselves, at which point the apparently harsh drill-sergeant reveals his heart of gold.

‘Whiplash’ pushes the scenario to and then beyond the limits. The instructor is not just harsh; he is a sadist, who heaps personal humiliation on the students. He sets them against each other, plays with their emotions, and sets impossible standards that have everything to do with power and nothing to do with the imparting of technical skill or theoretical knowledge. 

And our hero does become more determined, to an extent which is frankly pathological. Not only does he practice until his hands bleed, but he is involved in a near-fatal car crash and then crawls from the wreckage to make his way onto a stage for a chance to play ‘his’ part in a performance. He is a damaged, unpleasant monomaniac, who treats with derision everyone who is not also a monomaniac. He appears to have no human feeling except ambition to succeed as a drummer. He is nasty to his girlfriend (of brief duration), his kind and loving father, and everyone else he runs into.

This is the personality that the harsh instructor sets out to create, though he does not identify or empathise with our hero; he just carries on tormenting him. The instructor gets to make the occasional speech justifying this as demanding excellence, and this view is not really challenged in or by the film.

There is a beautifully filmed final set-piece in which the young hero, and therefore the cruel instructor’s philosophy, is vindicated by a superior performance. This performance is delivered in the context of an especially cruel and destructive (and frankly implausible) trap set for the hero; but he triumphs, and thereby finally earns the respect of the cruel instructor, as we always knew he would. This does demonstrate that the philosophy is actually sound – it got the desired result. This is a hymn to elitism that at least acknowledges, if only tacitly, the cost. For everyone who makes it to the promised land of excellence there are a hundred, or a thousand, people who might have been quite good players, and had some fun making music, who have been fatally discouraged because they could never be excellent.

I note in passing that none of the music students ever appear to enjoy music or have any fun playing; I know that 'Fame' was made-up and light entertainment, but there were moments when the students at the Fame Academy gave some indication that they were enjoying themselves. Not this lot. It reminded me of Andre Agassi's comment that he hated playing tennis. 

This is a brilliantly made, powerful film, with some amazing photography and exploration of human relationships, but it is also horrible - a sort of 'Triumph of the Will' for Jazz.

Review of 'Birdman'

A successful Hollywood actor in late middle age, best known for his performance in a super-hero franchise (the Birdman of the title) wants to put on a serious literary play on Broadway, doing the adaption and the directing and appearing as one of the main characters. He’s a bit troubled (drug addict teenage daughter, ongoing relationship with ex-wife, relationship with younger woman member of the cast), and he may be actually delusional – the film shows him as having super-powers, but only when no-one else is around, so he may be imagining this. He also hears a voice in his head, which turns out to come from the Birdman character. Oh, and he really doesn’t understand social media, which is presented as a near-disability.

Making the play turns out to be difficult – theatre people (especially an important reviewer) sneer at him, he doesn’t understand social media, the bankable actor they get to play the other male lead is not only arrogant but a bit of a fuck-up, and there are some amusing slapstick scenes as well as some dark ones with hints of suicide.

The delusions and the voices, play games with what we thing is real in the story. Most of the time this is pretty obvious (we know he can’t really fly or move objects with his thoughts), though sometimes it isn’t. What really distinguishes this film, though, is the cinematography – the use of colour, and the almost total absence of jump cuts. I am only certain about one; apart from that it’s all pans and zooms. There really aren’t any cuts, which give the film a really eerie quality.

It also made me think about ‘Maps to the Stars’. Actors, and film people, really do exist in a series of tightly interlocking personal networks. Their reputation, and their personal contacts, are their capital – so who snubs and blanks who really is of fundamental financial significance to them. Of course, this is the human social world that we all live in, and it’s these pecking orders that make us both happy and miserable. But for ‘arts’ people it is literally their livelihood and their material well-being as well as their social relations that are at stake, which is why they seem to have so much capacity for unhappiness despite their material wealth. Just saying…

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Review of 'Short Term 12'

Another thoughtful, quiet film - this one is about abused kids and the people who help them put themselves back together. Lots of character stuff, nicely observed. Very little violence or threat, and no focus on the abusers; the only one who is depicted appears very briefly, and while he is asleep - vulnerable and innocent.

This isn't a world I have any real insight into, but this struck me as a decent well-made film, dealing with hard stuff in a way that wasn't exploitative or melodramatic.

Review of 'The Lunchbox'

Disappointingly not a film about the bulge in someone's, actually a really nice Indian film, somewhat slow and under-stated, but nice and enjoyable for all that. It's a sort of romcom, but almost a sad, wistful one - the poster does it no justice.

An ageing account gets mis-delivered a tiffin tin. The tin has been sent by a much younger, unhappily-married woman who meant it to go to her uncaring husband. It's a really nice observed film about character, relationships (seen and unseen), chance, loss...if it had been Hollywood or even Bollywood it would have had an implausible big finish happy ending. Instead...well, watch it yourself, it's worth it.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Review of 'Philomena'

I watched this last night – the first film I've watched on an actual, physical-form DVD in ages. It was really good, with more dimensions than I would have guessed from the trailer. It’s not just a follow-up to all those nasty-nun lost children films like ‘The Magdalene Sisters’, though it is that as well. 

It’s also a comment on our media, and on how toxic and corroded the people who work in it have become. Steve Coogan, who I don’t like all that much as a comedian, is absolutely brilliant in this, and manages to convey something of the contempt that he and his class feel for working people and their ‘naff’ tastes, while at the same time also showing some recognition that this isn't right or even human.

Judy Dench is of course also wonderful, and her character manages to pose some interesting questions about atheism; I am myself both an atheist and a secularist, but the dynamic between Martin Sixsmith and Philomena does make me aware that there is a ‘taste’ element to the way in which ‘educated’ people look down on the beliefs of religious people. He is angrier with the nuns, on her behalf, than she herself is angry with them. Mind you, I felt just as angry as he did.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Review of 'Ida'

The other intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful film in which I dozed off - this time at a crucial moment. This film both looks and sounds as if it were made in the 1950s - even the screen size is deliberately retro, as is the sound production. It depicts a dreary, depressing Poland which has not come to terms with its wartime past. The main character is a young novitiate in a nunnery, who - just before she takes her vows - is introduced to an aunt that she hadn't previously known about. She soon learns that she is Jewish, her aunt a former Communist partisan who became a judge and has now fallen from favour. The aunt takes her on a trip to find out what became of her family, and they discover that the peasants who were hiding them from the Nazis had murdered them.

The film recalled my own trips to Poland - for work, not a concentration-camp pilgrimage - in which I nevertheless kept bumping into the ghosts of the Jewish past of Warsaw. The city had been one-third Jewish, and the "disappearance" of the Jews must have left an enormous hole in its social, cultural and culinary life; but my attempts to discuss this with a Polish colleague were really not welcome. It was also striking the way in which most Poles looked like each other, and how every so often I would see a face that was obviously Jewish.

The novitiate experiences life outside the nunnery, smokes, drinks, has sex with a jazz musician, and then consciously decides to replace her wimple and shows every sign of heading back to the nunnery as the film closes. Yet the cloistered life is not at all presented as ideal. A really complex, nuanced film - I'm really sorry about the bit I missed.

Review of 'The Theory of Everything'

One of two intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive films in which I have fallen into a deep sleep. I am, of course, ashamed to admit this, but confession is good for the soul or something like that.

This is mainly about Hawking's relationships - with his wife, and then with his carer - and how they fit with what we must call his 'disability', which seems much too mild a word. There is not much about his career, or his science, apart from a few set pieces - defending his PhD thesis, presenting his ideas for the first time at a conference, a TV appearance.

None the worse for that, and it is pretty explicit about his atheism and his rejection of the knighthood, though not some other gong that he did accept - the film implies to please his wife.

The bit I missed was the early, 'glittering prizes' scenes of Cambridge life; I don't think they were that important, though perhaps someone else will tell me otherwise.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Review of 'Jeff, who lives at home'

A quiet, small film about two brothers, each failures in their own way, coming to terms with the destiny that seems to have passed them by. I think it's supposed to be a 'screwball' comedy with lots of unlikely events conspiring to force the brothers together in difficult situations, but it mainly strikes me as sad. Susan Sarandon is good as the mother and owner of the home where one brother lives in the basement; she, and the two sons, have not got over the death of their father, and life is passing her by too.