Saturday, January 30, 2016

Review of 'How I stopped being a Jew' by Shlomo Sand

A hard one to review, because it arouses such mixed feelings. Shlomo Sand is a clever, sharp thinker and writer who says a lot of sense about Jewish history and Zionism. He’s got an honest perspective on where Zionism came from and how it has turned out. He understands what Israel has done to the Palestinians, and what Zionism means for both Israelis and for diaspora Jews – which is not the same, but related. In this very short book he gives a potted history of the Jews that isn’t bad, though sometimes the language is over-complex and academic. For the record I entirely agree with it, and with his disappointed hope that Israel would recognise an Israeli nationality and build its own identity around a civic nationalism that wasn't explicitly Jewish. I think he argues some of this with a great deal of sensitivity, and it’s hard to find fault with it.

He’s left out some of the personal anecdotes that he sprinkled through the ‘Invention of the Jewish People’ that I rather liked, though there are some new ones that also help to build sympathy with what might otherwise seem a somewhat unsympathetic position.

Which is, that there isn't really any such thing as a ‘secular Jew’, and that those of us who want to define ourselves that way are both deluding ourselves and also giving tacit support to an ethnocentric and even racist ideological perspective on Jewish history – and one that might once have been just a harmless fantasy but is now intrinsically linked with a racist political system in Israel. And my problem is that I can see some validity in what he says but I don’t want to agree. He rather makes fun of people who disagree with him, and tells the story of a meeting at the London Review of Books bookshop (which I attended) where he presented his views and where the liberal Jewish audience appeared to be arguing that he was wrong because they were allowed to define themselves however they wanted to.

Having spent more than half of my life feeling like a non-religious, non-Zionist Jew it’s not nice to be made fun of, or to be told that one’s self-chosen identity is (like all identities, but more so) a fiction. If I felt confident enough to argue with him (which I don’t, because he’s a sharp debater with lots of good examples at his fingertips) I’d say that he persuades himself with a certain sleight-of-hand. He seems to accept that even if there never was a ‘Jewish People’ there was a Yiddish People, created in the same way and at much the same time as the Polish or Lithuanian People. I think he’s a bit flaky with his chronology but we can let that go. He says that Yiddish people has ceased to exist as a result of the holocaust and Zionism and successful assimilation, which I can accept.

But I'm very clearly the grandchild of that people that were part of that people, or at least its tail end. I can accept that there isn't a successful self-sustaining secular Jewish culture that has a creativity of its own. I've tried to be part of passing on the remains of its legacy to my kids (and other people’s kids), and though we had fun I don’t believe the exercise was particularly fruitful. And still I don’t see why I need to repudiate my personal history to gratify the need that others (Israel, the Orthodox, Shlomo Sand) have for sharp and clearly defined boundaries. If others want to say that being a Jew is a religious identity, or a national one that requires loyalty to the ethnos, then I'm going to differ, out of loyalty to myself and my personal history, but also because it’s useful politically to do so. So I won’t stop being a Jew just now, thanks Shlomo. You be what you like, and so will I.

Review of 'Wedding Belles'

A made-for-TV film, watched via the All4 app and Chromecast - actually the first thing I've watched in exactly that way, as until recently All4 didn't support Chromecast and playing it via TV and an HDMI cable from a laptop was a really miserable experience.

This is billed as it's a comedy, and it just about is, but it's very dark - child abuse, drunkeness, drug abuse, other forms of addiction, violence, suicide,'s got the lot. It opens with a dockside execution by the four women and goes on in much that vein. There are scenes in a mental institutions, a nurse dressed as a nun jerking off an elderly patient...if that's the sort of thing that bothers you then you won't like this.

But it's also got four very strong women characters, played by really good actors (Michelle Gomez has been a favourite since Green Wing), and a sharp script written by Irvine Welsh. For an English viewer it was sometimes hard to understand (I had to turn up the sound to quite loud and listen to a few sections more than once).

Well worth watching.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Review of 'Alice in the Cities'

Watched on the Middle Floor screen at Springhill Cohousing, on a DVD from the private collection of the incomparable George Platts. A really slow black and white film, in which nothing much seems to happen for a lot of the time, and yet is really engaging and moving.

A young German writer has been engaged to write a story about his travels across America, but has not managed to actually write anything. Instead he meanders aimlessly from motel to diner, taking pictures without people on a Polaroid camera. In New York he helps a young woman and her nine-year old daughter book a flight back to Amsterdam (the ground crews at German airports are on strike) and somehow ends up with the daughter but without the mother back in Europe. The mother doesn't turn up, and he ends up travelling around Germany trying to find the girl's grandmother, even though the girl doesn't seem to know her family name or any addresses.

It's very clear that the early 1970s were a very different time (lots of smoking, and no-one seems to think it's odd that a young man is looking after a little girl who is not a relative), but I'm not sure if the film is entirely realistic in this depiction. There's lots of stuff about alienation through technology - horrible television programs, tinny transistor radios, juke boxes - and about the penetration of American culture into Europe, which is clearly not a good thing. But looking after the girl redeems the young man, who seems to reconnect with people again, something he has unlearned in America.

After the film we discussed it for almost an hour, and everyone seemed to have noticed something different. Well worth watching.

Review of 'Johanna'

Watched on a laptop from a library-rented DVD, this is one of the strangest cinematic experiences I've had for a while. Although none of the blurb and reviews say so, this is an opera, sort of. It's entirely sung, though there aren't what you'd call songs - just like an opera, then. The actors' voices are actually performed by others who presumably can sing better.

It's Hungarian, with all the melancholia that I would expect - I know there are a number of Magyar humourists, but somehow comedy doesn't seem to pervade the national culture. It's loosely based on Joan of Arc, apparently, though the eponymous Johanna is as much a martyred Jesus-figure as a Joan-figure. It's shot in murky colour in the tunnels underneath a hospital - there don't seem to be any windows or daylight in this place. A few of the scenes reminded me of the tunnels under the St George hospital in Barcelona, recently reopened as a monument. It looks pretty much like a nightmare - some scenes are redolent of the early episodes of 'Being Human', with blood and darkness.

Not a waste of time, but not what you'd call enjoyable either.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Review of 'Ride'

I watched this on Netflix last night (via Android phone and Chromecast) and ought to write a review, except that this one from The Guardian is so spot-on it leaves with little more to say. This is a film about privileged people who do think there's nowhere in the world to live except Greenwich Village or Santa Monica, and that the existential choices one faces are about whether to give up one's college place/fabulous editing job on the 'New Yorker' to be a surfer. Still, there are some good moments, and the underlying tension, about how the death of a child affects the relationship between parents and surviving children, is well handled. Better than the descriptions of it suggest.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Review of 'Joy'

Not much joy in this one. It's a rather long, remorseless account of life in what Americans call the middle class (and is really the working class), among people who are for the most part not very good at life. But Joy herself is smart and has (mostly abandoned) aspirations to greatness. She invents things, even though she's never been able to capitalise on those inventions.

At last she invents something that she wants to turn into a business - a new kind of mop. She encounters lots of obstacles, some from people who are just sceptical or unhelpful, and some from genuine crooks. In some ways this film could be a business school case study - it's just rather miserable to watch for most of the way, though there a few laughs here and there.

Because it's American it has an upbeat ending; a realistic ending would have seen Joy falling back into the morass of debt-ridden poverty that she fears all the way through.

Not without merit, but on balance one to avoid.

For the record, watched at the new Everyman cinema in Muswell Hill; comfortable but over-priced for experience. The cinema was more or less empty.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Review of 'The Danish Girl'

A much more emotionally engaging film than any I've seen lately. This deals with the relationship in the 1920s between two young Danish artists, one of whom decides that he wants to be a woman, not a man. Unsurprisingly it wasn't comfortable to watch - either in terms of what that character goes through or how it effects the relationship between the couple. I've no direct experience of this, but it seemed to me that the direction and the acting were excellent and treated the narrative with the sincerity and dignity that it deserved.

Of course it brought up lots of stuff, about the relationship between 'straight' and transgender people, and how to process that sort of transition. And naturally, about what kind of thing it is when people want to change their gender. In the film most of the doctors treat the character as insane. Mainly we don't do that now in this country, though I'm not sure how far popular attitudes have kept up with psychiatric and psychological procedure.

My own feelings are mixed up and muddled. I don't wish trans people any ill will, I don't want to stand in their way and I don't think they are 'insane'. But I do sort of think, in an amateur and not very focused way, that a more nuanced view of the nature of gender identity and sexual preferences than the 'woman trapped in a man's body' is possible.

Nevertheless this is a good, well-made film - watched at the Vue cinema in Stroud on a rainy Sunday night with few others there, BTW.

Review of 'Skyfall'

Watched as broadcast on ITV2, with lots and lots of breaks for adverts. I've not been a James Bond fan for years, but I recently found myself watching Spectre so I thought I'd see what this was like. Spectre is James Bond for Guardian readers (see earlier review) and this is a transitional form - some distinctly modern elements that don't fit with the earlier James Bond (M is a woman - Judy Dench, the locations are not so glamorous, Bond's relationships with women are less casual and more caring, etc).

But the politics are still more Daily Mail/Telegraph than Guardian; the baddie is a rogue agent turned against MI6 because the service sold him out to please the Chinese government and thereby ensure a peaceful transition in Hong Kong. In fact given that he's a lone rogue his power and influence, and the resources he can command, seem implausible - not that anyone cares about that sort of thing in a Bond film.

It also sets up the scenario for the next film, with Bond's upbringing in a remote house in Scotland, and a bit of a 'bureaucrats want to close down the field agents and replace them with technology' story line.

More watchable than I expected, and the filming in Scotland was quite beautiful, at least until it gets all shooty.