Thursday, December 20, 2018

Review of 'The Greatest Showman'

Musical bio-pic about the life of P T Barnum, that comes nowhere near describing the actual complexity of Barnum's life - as a sometimes con-man, politician, slave-owner and abolitionist. The film is fun to look at in a steampunk sort of way, and I enjoyed the dance routines more than I would have expected. I didn't enjoy the songs so much, and less than 24 hours later can't remember any. Are contemporary musicals worse than their older counterparts, or is it just a matter of how old I am and how often I've heard the tunes of the older ones?

Watched on an actual DVD.

Review of 'They Shall Not Grow Old'

Technically it's amazing, but the content and the message are a bit unsettling. I'm used to the story about WW1 that it was a pointless slaughter, a hell on earth with lions led by donkeys and so on; and I'm increasingly familiar with the revisionist counter-narrative, that it was after all a heroic effort by our brave boys to make the world a better place, or to stop the nasty imperialist Germans making it into a worse one. But this film, in which there is no narrator, and in which the story is entirely told in the words of the soldiers, doesn't come down on one side or another. Many of the former soldiers, apparently talking years after the war, seem to have regarded it as all rather good fun, which made men of them, and to have not at all questioned what it was about or whether their sacrifices were worthwhile or not.

As the film progresses there are some darker accounts; men describing the deaths and maimings of their friends and comrades, but it's still interspersed with accounts of bayonet charges and even hand-to-hand fighting that could easily have come from a Boy's Own comic...indeed, some of those accounts are accompanied, not by actual footage, but by images that look like exactly those sort of comics - brave Tommies going over the top into hordes of grimacing Huns. It ends with accounts from men who returned home shattered to find that no-one was very interested to hear what had happened to them, and that they were turned away from jobs with 'No Ex-Servicemen Need Apply' signs.

And still this is interspersed with brighter stories.

Is this more effective in creating a nuanced picture of the war than an account that was all horror and regret would have been, or does it just allow everyone to carry on thinking what they wanted to? Not sure.

I started watching this on BBC iPlayer, but didn't have time to finish it. I downloaded the film so as to watch the rest on my phone, but it disappeared before I got the chance - downloads from iPlayer seem to be a lot of trouble and not work well. Fortunately it was also available via informal distribution, so I downloaded it, saved it on to a USB drive and watched it on the smart TV.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Zionism and the Holocaust

Zionism and the Holocaust

One of the elements in the row over Ken Livingstone’s suspension from the Labour Party was the suggestion that he made that “Hitler was supporting Zionism”. The allegation that there is an affinity between Nazism and Zionism has been made before by Anti-Zionists. In the late 1980s there was Jim Allen’s play “Perdition”, which was cancelled after protests.

And there was Mahmoud Abbas’s 1984 book, based on his doctoral thesis, “The Other Side: the Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism”, which skirted very close to Holocaust denial as well as alleging “The Zionist movement led a broad campaign of incitement against the Jews living under Nazi rule to arouse the government's hatred of them, to fuel vengeance against them and to expand the mass extermination.”

The poster child for Livingstone and for others making this line of argument is Lenni Brenner, an American Trotskyist of Jewish origin, who has made something of a career out of this and has written several books on the subject, notably ‘Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, which served as source material for Jim Allen’s play.’.

Jewish commentators and historians, and lots of others, have consistently argued that these claims are wrong and deeply offensive, with one suggesting that Brenner’s claims are an ‘antisemitic hoax’.

So what are we to make of this? If we’re against antisemitism should we also be against this sort of thing? How much of this is legitimate historical enquiry and how much is ‘hoax’? Here are seven things that you should know as you make up your mind.

Much of this is not exactly news. Assertions about collaboration between mainstream Labour Zionists and Nazis were well known and much discussed in Israel and elsewhere during the 1950s and 1960s. They formed the basis of the Kastner trial, a libel action brought by the Israel government against Malchiel Gruenwald; they were used as a stick by the right-wing of the Zionist movement to beat the then-dominant Labour Party, Mapai. I have a copy of ‘Perfidy’, a 1961 book by screenwriter and Irgun supporter Ben Hecht, which covers much of the same ground as ‘Perdition’. Hannah Arendt, in her coverage of the Eichmann trial in 1960 also writes in grinding and painful detail about the relationship between Zionist officials in Hungary and the Nazis. This much, at least, is not a ‘hoax’.

Collaboration between Zionists and Nazis was not limited to Labour Zionists. The ‘revelation’ offered by Lenni Brenner includes some fascinating material about the Zionist right and far-right, particularly in the shape of an offer by Lehi (often known as the ‘Stern Gang’) to collaborate with the Nazis and Italian Fascists in fighting against the British Empire. Again, this is well known to Zionist and Israeli historians. No-one says it isn’t true. Few talk about what happened next, either, which was that Lehi pivoted towards support for Stalinism and ‘Hebrew National Bolshevism’, and that while some former Lehi members ended up (like Yitzhak Shamir) embedded in the mainstream Israeli right, others (like Maxim Ghilan and Nathan Yellin-Mor) ended up in the ‘peace camp’.

The relationship between Zionists, antisemites and fascists has often been complicated. Zionism is a Jewish nationalist movement and as such places the Jewish people at the centre of its moral universe. The suggestion that the most ardent Jewish nationalists thought the same way about Jews as did the most notorious haters of Jews is wrong and silly. But it’s not totally devoid of substance.
  • Founder of political Zionism Theodor Herzl met with Tsarist Jew-hating minister Vyacheslav von Plehve in an attempt to find a shared interest in the migration of Jews out of Russia.
  • Right-wing Zionist Jabotinsky admired Mussolini (and his movement was still collaborating with the Italian Fascist regime in the early 1930s), and right-wing Zionists in Poland admired Pilsudski.
  • Zionists of all kinds have prided themselves on a tough-minded, ‘ends justify the means’ outlook. Ben Gurion said: “If I knew that it was possible to save all the children of Germany by transporting them to England, and only half by transferring them to the Land of Israel, I would choose the latter, for before us lies not only the numbers of these children but the historical reckoning of the people of Israel.” That’s part of the justification offered in defense of the local collaborations during the Holocaust...though it rather begs the question as to why Kastner felt moved to be a character witness for SS man Kurt Becher after the war had ended.
  • And Zionism has always been a slightly weird nationalist movement; not only was its base located outside the designated national territory, but unlike other ‘folkish’ nationalist movements it was largely uninterested in the national culture of the nation it sought to lead, preferring to create its own ‘new’ culture from scratch.
Collaboration does not characterise the whole of the Zionist response to Fascism and Nazism. Mainstream Zionism put its trust in the British Empire. Its primary strategy for most of the Mandate period was to build up Jewish settlement in Palestine, within the Empire, until such time as there was a Jewish majority and a sovereign state could be established. The main disagreement with the right of the Zionist movement, the Revisionists, was about this. Not surprisingly most Zionists supported the Allied cause in WW2, and there are lots of examples of Zionist involvement (like the Armée Juive, and the Zionists who participated in the ZOB in the Warsaw Ghetto) in the resistance under Nazi occupation. Zionist sources sometimes imply that Zionists were the mainstay of Jewish resistance fighters, when they weren’t. Anti-Zionists gloss over the involvement of Zionists in fighting Nazis because it doesn’t fit the story they want to tell.

Collaboration was not unique to Zionists. Various ‘anti-imperialists’ sided with the enemies of their imperial occupiers. There was Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, which fought with the Japanese against the British. The IRA tried to get support from Nazi Germany. And of course there’s the Hitler-Stalin pact, and the Mufti of Jerusalem’s efforts to rally Arab and Muslim support for the Nazis. In Europe the Nazis found collaborators among the traditional Jewish community leaders - often from people faced with no good choices, and sometimes under conditions of extreme duress or misinformation. This is well documented by Hannah Arendt too.

Nazis and Zionists did not meet as equals. This is perhaps the most important point. Whatever Zionists - and others - did, they did in extraordinary circumstances, sometimes with limited information and without any understanding of how the story would end. That doesn’t exonerate everything, but it’s part of the context, and often missing from accounts about Zionist-Nazi collaboration that suggest it was driven by ideological congruity between the two parties. The Haavara Agreement, between the Nazi regime and the Zionist Federation of Germany, illustrates this.

The Holocaust doesn’t vindicate Zionism. It’s sometimes suggested that the Holocaust is the absolute clinching argument on the subject of Zionism - that the Holocaust proved that Zionism was right. There is a famous quote from Isaac Deutscher: “If, instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s I had urged European Jews to go to Palestine, I might have saved some of the lives that were later extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers.”

But this is beside the point. Zionism was for the most part premised on the idea that antisemitism was ineradicable - a hereditary, incurable psychic aberration, in the words of early Zionist Leon Pinsker. Nevertheless it didn’t see the Holocaust coming, any more than anyone else did. Nor did it have a plan to rescue the Jews of Europe from the Nazis. Although the Zionist leadership in Palestine fought against and sought to undermine the British Empire’s restrictions on Jewish immigration, they did not have - and could not have had - plans for the immediate mass transfer of millions of Jews to Palestine. Instead they sought to gradually build up a Jewish economical and institutional base within Palestine that could one day form the basis - at some time in the future - for a Jewish sovereign state. Even if such a state existed in 1939 its limited military power would not have been able to protect Jews from Nazi plans.


That’s a quick tour round the historical context of ‘Zionist-Nazi collaboration’. There’s lots more detail in the links, and room for sensible argument and differing interpretations. There is plenty that makes uncomfortable reading for Zionists and their supporters, but nothing that justifies the kinds of extraordinary claims made by Livingstone and others who have supported him.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Review of 'The Wedding Plan'

A fairly dull Israeli film about an Orthodox woman who has waited eleven years to get married but has never found anyone who wants to marry her. It's not entirely clear why. She's not unattractive, and she has a nice sense of humour. But it never quite works out, and then she has a definite proposal and is booking the wedding hall when the fiance confesses that he doesn't love her. But she decides not to cancel the hall, in the belief that someone will turn up.

It's mainly boring, and not interesting to look at. The settings are dreary, not much happens, we don't get any insight into her or any other characters. There's quite a lot of music in it, but it mainly stinks. There's an implausible happy ending, made slightly more plausible by the way that some other plot elements don't seem to make much sense either - what happens to the handsome singer who wants to marry her at one point? He just walks out of the film.

Watched at Redbridge Jewish Community Centre via its Israeli film club.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Review of 'Battle'

A Norwegian film that's basically about social class, as viewed through the prism of youth culture and dancing. Amalie comes from a wealthy background and goes to a good school where she does some sort of modern expressive dancing with her well-heeled and smug school-friends - they hang out at each others' swimming pools, go sailing together, practice dancing in each others' home dance gyms. But then Amalie's dad falls foul of some bailiffs and debt collectors, because his business is broke. Their house is taken away, and they are moved into a flat in a bad neighborhood. Actually the flat looks pretty great apart from a spot of mold on one wall, but this is Norway so the standards are different.

Amalie needs to practice her dancing but - oh misery - the new flat doesn't have wooden floors! So she find the local youth centre which has a studio, but is occupied by brownish people who do hip-hop and street dance. And soon she's fallen in with them as part of her new life, but she's still trying to live the old life in parallel without letting her friends (and her old posh boyfriend) know about the hard times she's fallen on and about the new life.

So that sort of film, made more interesting by the fact that it's in Social-Democratic, egalitarian Norway.

Review of 'Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle'

Watched this, though not quite from the beginning, on Netflix. It struck me as rather close to the spirit of the Kipling book than the Disney version, though it's a really long time since I either read the book or saw the Disney Film. Much more violent - not really suitable for little kids.

Perhaps that's why I can't remember whether the White Hunter who appears in the film was in the book - I don't think so.  It sort of has a happy ending that resolves the tension between Mowgli's living in the jungle and his returning to human civilization that struck me as a bit silly; but it's visually very striking. I particularly liked the description of the social life of the wolf pack, which was part of the point of the book.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Review of 'Disobedience'

Unusually a film that I'd say is better than the book, though that wasn't bad. About an Orthodox Jewish community where the death of the rabbi brings his wayward and disobedient daughter back from New York, where she has fled following a scandal in the community.  A generally sympathetic depiction of the frumer community - more sympathetic than the book, I think. Somebody has managed to ensure that every prayer in the film uses 'hashem' rather than 'Adonai'. Some lesbian sex - I can't comment on how good they are, having never been there.

One striking thing is that the book managed to convey well the visual ugliness of so much in the Orthodox community's physical environment; I was struck at its description of badly converted houses, that I remembered from my childhood but hadn't ever been aware of consciously. But the film, which is after all a visual art form, doesn't manage this at all - everything looks really quite nice.

Watched at the Everyman cinema in Muswell Hill.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Review of "Tumbledown"

Surprisingly interesting film - a romcom I suppose, but elements of proper drama and grief/mourning. Lots of stuff about how cold it is in Maine and how hard that is for city folk - reminded me of the blog 'cold house journal', which I must look at again. Anyway, I enjoyed much more than I expected.

Watched on Netflix via Chromecast.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Review of 'Early Man'

Some good visual jokes for the knowing - especially in the Bronze Age city. I particularly liked the names of the stalls in the market place; 'Pelts for Celts' and 'The Beaker People' were there. But not as funny as other Nick Park films. I probably missed some of the football-themed jokes, though lots of them were pretty obvious even for someone who doesn't know or care much about football.

Watched on Amazon Prime.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Review of 'The Land of Steady Habits'

Another really sad film, this time about people who are comparatively rich and successful, but still confronted by emptiness and failed relationships. There are occasional laughs, but it's mainly pretty bleak. Rubbish friendships, loneliness, and erectile disfunction.

The children of the successful people are all lost, drifting between drugs, booze and rehab. The parents are trying to do their best but don't know what that is - there's a touching moment when one dad tells the son of another couple how they'd taken away their son's teddy bear because they'd been worried he would be teased, and he'd been devastated.

Again, something of an implausibly happy ending. Even indie movies can't seem to stomach confronting us with the full bleakness of the stories they describe.

Watched on Netflix via phone and Chromecast.

Review of 'Lean on Pete' (yeah, spoilers again)

A very good, sad and somewhat harrowing film about a young man - he's fifteen and should be at school, though he's not - living in Portland with a dad who is a drunk (the blurb describes him as an alcoholic, though that's not really apparent). He drifts into a casual job with a not-very-successful racehorse owner, becomes sentimentally attached to one of the not-very-successful racehorses, and triggers a series events that leaves him wandering across the western side of the United States and sliding deeper into its poorest and most desperate strata.

I was struck by all the terrible things that could have happened to him but didn't. Another character warns him that in the district where he is sleeping rough he is likely to get robbed, or raped; he doesn't, even though he is a very pretty young man. And there's a Hollywood-style happy ending, which is logical and plausible but not very likely. Most young people in this predicament end up dead or destroyed.

Watched at Lansdown Film Club in Stroud.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Review of Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot

Sort of biopic of cartoonist John Callahan, who was an alcoholic and paraplegic as a result of a drunk-driving accident. A narrative structure that involves lots of flashbacks and flash-forwards to make interesting what would otherwise be a bit plodding, but there's lots of genuine pathos and quite a bit of disabled/paraplegic sex - although Callahan doesn't seem very likable lots of people seem to like him. I didn't even like his cartoons that much - a bit racist and sexist some of the time, and lots of fairly vicious jokes about disabled people, which of course were OK coming from him because...

AA is the real hero - and it does make it clear that AA is a religious organisation, despite some  affectionate jokes about Christianity.

Watched on Amazon Prime.

Review of Widows

Very dark thriller - dark in both senses of the word, because much of what happens on the screen is really murky. It has a complex plot - the trailer makes it look like a regular heist movie, but it's actually much more complicated, with a lot of insight into Chicago politics, sexual politics, and lots more. There were some elements that I needed to go over to make sure I understood them, and one or two that I'm still not sure I followed.  Hard to convey much of this without spoilers, but it's definitely worth seeing.

Watched at the Arthouse Cinema in Crouch End - nice comfortable cinema, but so cold!

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Review of 'Allied'

Quite good war-time spy/double agent thriller, with Brad Pitt in the lead as a Canadian special ops guy who falls for his associate and then discovers that she is/may be a double agent. Quite tense, convincingly shot, though I was not entirely satisfied with the double agent character. Also, I rather think that when the secret services discover an agent, or a double agent, in place, they try to turn and use them, rather than require them to be shot dead there and then.

Watched on Netflix.

Review of 'Budapest Noir'

This was something of a disappointment. I'd been really looking forward to it since seeking Réka Tenki in On Body and Soul, where she was great. I'd watched the trailer and saw how atmospheric it looked, and I had high hopes.

It did look great; Budapest is very photogenic and it's beautifully shot. But the script and the plot really let it down. Our hero is an implausibly well-connected crime reporter. There's a bit of an antisemitism theme, but it's incidental to the plot, more for colour than anything else.

 It's as if someone decided that they would put in everything that could possibly go into a film noir, and that somehow it would all come together. But it doesn't. The plot just about hangs together but it sort of plods along...there isn't much suspense or feeling of mystery; and once we've got used to secondary characters being slaughtered while our hero remains implausibly untouched, there isn't any noir-like feeling of menace. Also, while I love the kind of Jazz that is typically associated with noir, I felt that the soundtrack ought to have been more Cabaret and less LA Confidential. And Réka Tenki's character isn't all that interesting.

Watched at Woodford Odeon, as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival.

Review of 'Animal Dreams' by Barbara Kingsolver

Another nicely-written, well-structured book from Barbara Kingsolver, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It's great that she not only creates believable characters (especially blue-collar ones), but that she also has her heart so firmly in the right place. This one has environmental degradation and a sister who goes off to help the Sandinista revolution as an agronomist. I'm a bit concerned that the ending is a bit fairy-tale, at least as far as the evil environment-trashing mining company is concerned, but I'm not sure I could have endured a more 'realistic' ending.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Review of 'The Wife' (another spoiler alert)

A film about a New York writer (inevitably, he's Jewish) who is feted as a great, and wins the Nobel Prize for literature, but really it's his wife who is writing the books. Well crafted and acted, beautifully filmed. Great portrayal of her as the actual creative genius who is mainly content to take a back seat as long as she can write and be published and be read, which she wouldn't have been able to do as a 'woman writer'. Great portrayal of him as an utter no-talent prick who is pompous and self-important, and refers even in private to their relationship as a 'writing partnership'.

I note in passing how long ago 1992 (when the film is set, apart from some flashbacks to the 1960s) now seems - no internet, no mobile phones...any of which would have made the plot less plausible.

Watched at the O2 Cinema in Finchley Road - huge screen, powerful sound not really needed for this intimate film.

Review of 'Indignation' (Spoiler Alert)

The official theatrical release poster
Another not-so-great film on Netflix. Young Jewish guy in 1950s America goes from New York to a conservative college in Ohio, partly to avoid being drafted to fight in Korea. His parents are over-protective, he's a socialist and atheist who must dodge the two Jewish room-mates the college has assigned him to and the Jewish fraternity that seeks to recruit him. He attracts the attentions of a beautiful but troubled wasp and posh female student, who sucks him off in his room-mates borrowed car.

It's a bit "Portnoy's Complaint" (well, it's based on novel by Philip Roth), a bit American Graffiti, and a bit something more serious...but it's also a bit boring and a bit too pleased with itself. Bits of the plot don't really make sense or seem implausible. Some of the cinematography also seems odd, the more so because most of it is so conventional.

Watched on Netflix via two halves, several days apart.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Review of 'The Bean Trees'

Just read this, having read lots of her later work. This reads very much like a first novel - it's not terrible, but it's not as good as what comes after. Some of the same themes and characteristics are already present - giving a voice to what we would now call the 'left behind' - blue-collar workers (or would-be workers) usually unrepresented in literature, and the nature writing, and the kinds of insight into ecosystems that it properly informed by science. The plot and the characters just sort of ramble along, though, and eventually it just ends. I'm glad this wasn't the first Kingsolver I read, or I might not have bothered with the rest.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Review of 'Sanctuary'

A film about people with learning disabilities in a very bleak-looking Galway City, Ireland. A group of people with learning disabilities go on an outing to the cinema, and their not-very-competent (but kind) care worker arranges for two of them to have a romantic liaison in a hotel room.

I can't say I enjoyed the film, but I think it was good and I'm glad I saw it. There are a few laughs - it's sort of a comedy - but it's also very serious. I just don't think about people with Down's syndrome very much, and at the beginning watching them acing made me feel more uncomfortable that I'd like to admit to myself or anyone else.

As others more knowledgeable than me are probably already aware, after a little while you stop seeing the disability and start to see the individuals. I might have known intellectually that people with learning disabilities have the same emotions and human engagements as other 'normal' people, but after watching this I actually felt it.

Watched at Lansdown Film Club in Stroud.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Review of 'First Man'

A really long film that managed to be both tense and boring at the same time. Once we get to Apollo 11 the tension has gone, and we're all just waiting for Armstrong to say the lines that we know are coming; but earlier on it really feels like we're in that test plane or space capsule - the film is really claustrophobic and uncomfortable. Armstrong's character is oddly devoid of affect - not surprising, that's why NASA chose him, because he didn't let emotion get in the way of his judgement, even when a normal person would be scared witless. There is a sort of overlay that says he is bottling up the emotion of his young daughter's death from cancer, but it wasn't convincing to me. Clare Foy as his wife does all the feeling for both of them.

There is some suggestion in the film that the point of the moonshot was to beat the Soviets, who seemed to be winning the space race, but it doesn't really go anywhere with this. Towards the end we are left with the feeling that the moonshot was worthwhile in its own terms, and that all humanity benefitted from this great achievement of the USA. This is not examined at all. The film does show how there was dissatisfaction with the space programme before the success of Apollo 11, and suggests that this all evaporated when the landing was successful.

In order to achieve this it engages in a bit of dishonest sleight of hand. In general there is very little about the context of the time, but for a few minutes we get some audio overlay of anti-war protests and some shots of placards protesting the money wasted on the programme. Then there's some footage of a young black man performing Gil Scott-Heron's fabulous rap "Whitey on the moon" - all part of the sour carping criticism of the space programme that will later be vindicated by the spiritual moment of Armstrong's first step on behalf of all humanity. Except...that "Whitey on the moon" is from 1970, after the landing, and represents part of the still-strong protest and radical politics of that era. The film-makers must know this because they will have had to licence it, but they have literally re-organised history to make it say what they want it to.

Watched at the Everyman cinema in Muswell Hill.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Review of 'Swept from the Sea'

Period drama in which a lot of top-notch English actors spend a lot of time looking out to sea with moody expressions. A bit long and boring really, despite nice shooting and acting. Rachel Weisz barely has a speaking part, though she looks as gorgeous as ever.

Redeemed somewhat by the fact that it's about English hostility to an immigrant of impeccable manners and hard work - although he's a good guy he'll never be accepted by the locals. Based on a short story by Joseph Conrad, who manages to seem very contemporary so often.

Watched on Amazon Prime directly on the Smart TV.

Review of 'How to be single'

Rom-com sort of thing, slightly lifted by the presence of several quirky women - Rebel Wilson doing her fat coarse thing with some wit. Despite the title the women spend most of their time not wanting to be single and looking for Mr Right, while most of the men spend their time trying not to get hitched. A few laughs, watchable.

Was this on Prime or Netflix? Already forgotten, and in a few weeks I will have forgotten the film too.

Review of 'I don't feel at home in this world any more'

Billed as a comedy-thriller, but rather darker than we were expecting; rather a lot of gore and death. A woman is burgled and ends up trying to get her stuff back after the police take very little interest (apart from admonishing her about her home security and insurance). As a result she gets to see into a subculture of violence and criminality that's right next door.

Accurate in its depiction of working class life in America, unlike the way that TV and films often make it look like working class Americans live in mansions - this woman and her new neighbour-friend live in houses that are little better than shacks.

Watched on Netflix - we chose it because it had won a prize at Sundance.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Review of 'Restoration' by Rose Tremain

Really enjoyable...beautifully written, intelligent, insightful. A novel of characters rather than of plot, which works so well because Merivel is such a good character - with lots of insight into himself, but not so omniscient as to render him uninteresting. Just great...I can't believe I have waited so long to read this, and I'm quite tempted to watch the film too.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Review of 'Bombshell'

A bit on the long side but an interesting fim about Hedy Lamarr, who was both beautiful and very clever, in a world where being both was not a permissible option for women. So the film is quite sad. Lamarr was celebrated for her beauty but her intelligence was deemed inadmissible. Her achievements - notably the invention of frequency hopping - were not given any recognition in her lifetime.

She was too beautiful to get really good parts and ended up doing sultry sexpot roles, until she was too old for those. Then she descended into a world of ghastly and increasingly ineffective plastic surgery in a doomed effort to stay beautiful and young.

Watched on Netflix.

Review of 'Hold the Dark'

Thought this would be mystery story, and it turned out to be a brutal confusing splatter-fest, with multiple pointless brutal murders. I had to read the Wikipedia article to understand the plot, and even then what I learned was that there are bits of the story that just don't make sense - or that you can't understand from what's presented on the screen. Also over-long, though some of the nature scenes are beautiful to look at.

Watched on Netflix.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Review of 'Casablanca'

Still wonderful, even on a third watching. When I wasn't concentrating so much on the plot (or on deciphering the Hebrew subtitles, because the first time I saw it was on Kibbutz Hasolelim in Israel) I could appreciate how sharp the script is, and the shooting, and how great the close-up shots are.

Watched in the Middle Floor at Springhill via informal distribution, laptop and projector.

Review of 'Meet Joe Black'

Pretty awful...Death comes for a powerful, successful media magnate, but then he does a deal whereby the magnate can have some extra time on earth if he introduces Death to the pleasures of real life. Why Death has waited so long for this (pleasures include trying peanut butter, and falling in love with the magnate's daughter) is unexplained. Death incarnates in the form of a beautiful young man who'd just met the daughter and then died in a stupid road accident, and this leads to some mystery, and some laughs, and lots of inexplicable and nonsensical plot lines.

It all ends sort of happily and stupidly. I was struck by how utterly rubbish the plot was, and how ugly the American version of opulence looks - the magnate is very rich, and all of his stuff is really repulsive (though it's not supposed to be). The film is very long; although the script is terrible the acting isn't too bad, and the cinematography is occasionally OK.

Watched in the Middle Floor at Springhill on a DVD.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Review of 'Paris and London in the 18th Century'

I'd forgotten what it's like to read a book written by academics for academics. This is 'studies in popular protests,, but it's definitely not for a popular audience. It's proper academic history, from primary sources, and it assumes that everyone knows the main outline of the events covered. I remembered some of that from A level history - who the Hebertists were, and so on - but I'd forgotten lots, which meant that it was only possible to read this with Wikipedia at hand.

And it's more than a bit repetitive, partly because it's actually a collection of essays once published separately, so it makes the same point again and again - mainly that 'the crowd' and 'the mob' consisted of respectable members of the 'lower orders' (artisans, craftsment, small shopkeepers) rather than either proletarians-in-formation or criminals and vagabonds. It also makes it clear that popular protest often wasn't  about what we'd think of as progressive politics - in England there was always a strong element of chauvinism and Protestant supremacy.

Not a fun read though - I think I'd rather have re-read Mark Steel's Vive La Revolution again.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Review of 'My Cat Yugoslavia'

Strange and not entirely satisfying. A young Kosovan man who is a refugee in Finland, and is gay but not entirely comfortable about it, lives on his own, but has a pet boa constrictor for company. And then he meets a talking cat at a gay bar (the cat is sort of homophobic, but the young man and the cat seem to have sex, though it's hard to be sure), and the cat moves in with him.

There is a parallel narrative about his mother as a young girl in Kosovo, in a very traditional patriarchal and conservative community. The Kosovans all love Tito but socialism doesn't seem to have had much impact on their way of life or material well-being. It all goes horribly wrong, first for the young girl and then for Yugoslavia and Kosovo. The family flee to Finland, where her horrible husband is even more bitter and unpleasant to his wife and children, who eventually run away from that one of them can become the young man of the other narrative.

The cat becomes progressively more unpleasant as a lover and house guest, and the young man becomes pitifully and slavishly devoted to him, echoing the way his mother was like a slave to his brutal and nasty father. And then, on a trip to Kosovo to visit his grandparents, the cat just vanishes, and doesn't reappear in the story, or even the young man's thoughts. And then he has to kill his snake, which he sometimes loves.

What does it all mean? I haven't the faintest idea. It might be allegorical, but I didn't get the allegory. It's well written, but disturbing and sort of empty at the same time.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Review of 'Three Summers'

Enjoyable Australian rom-com set at a folk festival over a three year period; anyone who has ever been to a festival will find something to enjoy. Including a Theremin moment...

Some of the plot developments, and the anti-racist denoument - feel a bit contrived, but it's still good fun. Nice to see John Waters (Darcy from Offspring) and Deborah Mailman (Cherie from Offspring) in other roles.

Review of 'Distrust that particular flavour'

A collection of previously published non-fiction writings by William Gibson - articles from newspapers and magazines, introductions and forewords to other books, and so on - suplemented by Gibson's  responses to the pieces with the benefit of hindsight.

It's pretty good - well written, enjoyable - and Gibson's afterthoughts are both modest and perceptive. One of the pieces really stands out - The Road to Oceania, published in the New York Times in 2003. It seems to presage all of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Review of 'The Tenderness of Wolves'

Historical novel set in rural northern Canada, that seems to have been on the point of being really good, but somehow wasn't. There's a good plot with some false leads, lots of the characters are interesting and have complex back stories, there's lots of great descriptions of the frozen north...and still, it's not quite there. There was a long period in the middle that seemed to have too much plot and not enough direction, and I must admit that I got a bit confused as to who all the characters were - some of them were not well differentiated from each other.

I stuck with it and ended up enjoying it, but it wasn't an entirely satisfying experience.

Also, there are almost no wolves in it, and those that are don't show any tenderness at all. So why the title? And the characters all seemed to bump into each other all the time, like they do in Game of Thrones. Is that really plausible in the tractless wastes of the frozen north?

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Review of 'Only the Brave'

A film about US firefighters - not the ones in towns, but the ones who fight forest fires. The film seems to assume we either know or care a lot about the administrative structure of fire-fighting in the US - our heroes are a municipal fire fighting team but everyone else is a Federal government team, and there is some sort of status that results in them being called 'hotshots' that somehow means that they earn more money for the town when they fight fires in forests...from who? Not sure.

Anyway, it's a tale of heroism and male bonding among blue collar workers, and it's nice that for once this isn't about war or at anyone else's expense - not even the liberal elite or pointy-headed bureaucrats. There is nothing in the film about the debates around whether to 'fight' forest fires at all, let alone about climate change...fires just are, and they have to be fought. But its heart is in the right place, and I found myself gripped by what happened to the men of the unit.

And it's a true story, pretty much.

Watched on Netflix.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Review of Paper Moon

I saw this film in 1974 when it first came out. I'm pretty sure I watched it with my parents, who had been enthusiasts for the Peter Bogdanovitch's other black and white period movie 'The Last Picture Show'. I loved the film even then, though it's odd how little of it I remember...mainly just the bibles scam and Addie's intuitive grasp on the con game.

I don't think I appreciated, at the time, just how much it was a film of its time. Although the tone is generally quite light what's going on in the background is the Depression...every so often we see groups of ragged travelers in the background, with their meager possessions in suitcases or on handcarts. The look of the film recalls Walker Evans's photos for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and perhaps also The Grapes of Wrath - especially in the way Addie's face is lit.

And I couldn't help wondering whether, in 1974, it felt like this was a world that was now coming back - 1974 being the time of the first oil shock and the year that the post-war boom finally ran out of steam.

Watched in the Middle Floor at Springhill, on a big screen and (I think) via an old-fashioned DVD.

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Review of 'How Far Can You Go?' by David Lodge

I think an apology is in order, to all my Catholic friends. I'm sorry, I didn't realise how miserable it has been. We joke about how there's Catholic guilt and Jewish guilt, and it means we have something in common in this C of E country...but nothing in my Jewish upbringing was remotely like the misery the young Catholics in this novel experience.

It's a story about a cohort of Catholic students and a few others around them (like the junior chaplain at their London college) and the way that the developments in Catholicism and the church play out in their lives. It's fascinating, and a bit frightening, because I had no idea that anyone in the modern world took any of this stuff seriously - I mean, I'd heard about indulgences and so on, but I had no idea that they were still a thing in my lifetime.

The book is - probably rightly - focused on sex, and occasionally love - so it's also an account of the 'sexual revolution' of the 1960s and 1970s, at least as experienced by a group of mainly middle-class educated Catholics. The reviews and the blurb indicate that it's supposed to be a comic novel, but though I enjoyed it there weren't many laughs, or even smiles.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Review of 'Black Klansman'

A really good tense thriller, with quite a lot of humour, a great soundtrack and a visual delight - with absolutely no doubt as to where its poltical sympathies lie.

There are some plot holes and gaps that don't entirely make sense. The newly-appointed first black cop in Colorado Springs somehow manages to launch his own inflitration investigation into the local KKK, and though the police chief is a racist he still gets enough support and resources to make the investigation work. Although our black cop does the phone calls to the KKK his Jewish colleague does the actual in-person infiltrating...I'm not at all sure why that should be necessary as it makes the whole thing more risky for no obvious gain. Why can't the Jewish cop do the phone calls too? But it does provide some scope for some humour as KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke tells our hero that he can always tell a black person (not the word he uses) from his accent.

There is some real edge of seat stuff when we fear that the Jewish infiltrator is going to be fingered as a cop, and some parallel stuff with our black hero's infiltration of the local Black Students' Union, which includes several gorgeous leather-clad women militants with big Angela Davis afros. The KKK are really frightening - not the funny sheet-wearing buffoons that sometimes appear in films. Harry Belafonte has a cameo role as speaker to the black students.

There's a sort of coda to ensure that we understand that the monsters of the far right haven't gone away - something that it's easy to forget in films about say the Civil Rights movement, where the racists often look old and ridiculous and the narrative seems to say "isn't it uplifting that no-one thinks like that any more?"

Lots of cinematic references, to blaxploitation films among others (surely not everyone in a small-town Black Students Union would have looked that fantastic?), and some others that I could recognise were references but nevertheless didn't quite get.

A small personal note: in 1976 the same David Duke depicted in the film (set in 1972) came to Brighton, and to the University of Sussex campus at the invitation of the local Federation of Conservative Students.

Watched at the Everyman Cinema in Muswell Hill

Friday, August 24, 2018

Review of Barkskins by Annie Proulx

A rather wonderful huge novel (does Annie Proulx write any other kind?) about the timber industry in North America over four centuries. It's told as a tale of two families, both descended from two indentured French migrants to Canada, though the lines intertwine and some of the 'descendants' are actually descended from adoptees. It's about the fate of the forests, of indigenous people, and the hard life of the men (and sometimes women) in the process of logging, and lots more. It's more about other forms of ecological devastation than climate change, though that gets an appropriate level of discussion towards the end too.

The last fifty pages or so felt a bit slack, like she was tidying up a bit, but the very ending was worth waiting for.

Review of 'The Illusionist'

A fictionalized version of the Mayerling incident (for my money Private Vices, Public Pleasures was a better film account of this), in which the Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian empire committed suicide in a hunting lodge, with ramifications for the succession and thus the future of the empire. One of a spate of magician-inspired period dramas, like The Prestiege.

This one is quite good, with nice acting (Rufus Sewell always good as a Teutonic villain) and a nicely-achieved period look (though I wasn't sure about some of the sepia-toning - I mean, the past wasn't actually sepia, was it?). Shot in various locations in the Czech Republic rather than in Vienna where it's set - presumably cheaper and more authentic-looking. Odd to make some of the characters speak English with slight German accents...either they are speaking English, or German; either way the accent thing is silly.

Because it's a film about a magic trick, the plot turns on how this is achieved - though it's only revealed in a sort of montage sequence at the end, and I can't say I followed all of that. But it didn't detract from the enjoyment.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Great Bands at Womad 2018

Things we liked:

Hanggai (Mongolian rockers)
Ladama (Latin American feminist band)
La Dame Blanche (Cuban singer)
Leftfield (live house music - we missed out on that whole thing the first time round)
KermesZ a L'Est (mad Belgian brass punks playing mainly Balkan music, with lots of street theatre and comedy)
Bollywood Brass Band with Jyotsna Srikanth
Dobet Gnahore
Mr Jukes
The Undercover Hippy (sort of reggae/ska, politically engaged lyrics)
Tuuletar (amazing Finnish acapella women)
Jiggy (Irish folk-rock)
Meklit (Ethiopian)
Too Many Zooz (live electronic music played on baritone sax, trumpet and drums/percussion)
The Dirty Bourbon River Show
Thievery Corporation

Monday, July 09, 2018

Review of 'Flight Behaviour' by Barbara Kingsolver

Really loved this - a clever, thoughtful and often funny book about climate change, poverty, education, science, community,'s just great. Particularly good on insights into what it's like to be a poor person (especially a working poor person) in a rural part of the US, and why such people aren't interested in any kind of environmental activism. There are great portraits of educated urban activists, and it's made me look at my tribe through different eyes.

Friday, June 29, 2018

RSA report on Cohousing

So I read the RSA report on cohousing - see here - and my main take-away is that it wasn't really about cohousing. There's lots about what is broken in the UK housing market - in particular, the lack of actually affordable (as opposed to "affordable", now a term with special meaning that specifies a discount from overblown market rents rather than a relationship to disposable income), and the poor terms and conditions that apply to renters but not so much to mortgage buyers. There is quite a lot discussion about forms of tenure, with particular emphasis on mutual ownership, rental co-ops, a community land trusts.

That's all very interesting (really, it is) but most of the report misses the point about cohousing, which is that it is form of occupancy, not a form of tenure. The cohousing community where I live, and most of the others in the UK and the US, is primarily based on owner-occupancy, though there are some private renters (living in homes owned by individuals, not the community or any other institution) and some lodgers. The tenure is more or less bog-standard leasehold that you'd find in many blocks of flats. In Northern Europe there are lot more rental-based cohousing communities, with the community (or a housing association) acting as the landlord.

The distinguishing feature of the occupancy is really the self-management. Other developments have shared facilities. It's a common feature of high-end developments (pool, gym etc.). Old-style US condominiums have residents' association rooms and facilities, and shared laundries seem to be common in US apartment blocks (though not in British ones). The new commercial 'co-living' set-ups like The Collective have them too.

The difference is that in co-housing these are managed and maintained, and cleaned, (for the most part) by the residents themselves, and it's the organisation of this that means that people are necessarily entangled and involved with each other. Not everyone is equally involved, but it seems to be true that the more you put in, the more you get out - at least in terms of loneliness reduction.

Our community has frequent (thrice-weekly) communal meals, prepared and cooked by community members through a rota, to a rolling meal schedule, in a communal kitchen and dining room that is beautifully maintained. The eating together is important (though not every cohousing community does it), but it's the self-management - the rotas and the inevitable shift swaps, the menus, the food buying - that keeps people entangled with each other. The upside of cohousing, the connection with other people, is exactly the same as the downside - that you are inextricably bound up with other people.

When my partner and I tell our friends about it, they often react that they wouldn't like to have all of those obligations...and they might be right. In one sense, the people in cohousing are just like everyone else. There isn't a common ideology or philosophy. Not everyone is particularly generous or self-less. Some people are involved with wider communities, some aren't. What distinguishes them is their ability to tolerate these obligations, and that level of entanglement with other people and need to take the views and preferences of others into account. I suspect that this is a not such a common characteristic, especially in Britain, especially now. If I'm right, then cohousing won't be a cure for loneliness, at least for many people - though it is a good vehicle for those who are that way inclined. It's probably worth noting that even in those Scandinavian countries where it's well established and relatively easy to establish the proportion of the population that lives in cohousing remains below 5%.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Review of 'Regarding Henry'

Harrison Ford is a nasty, rapacious lawyer who defends corporate bad guys against little people that they have wronged, even if he knows they are wrong. He works in a Manhattan law firm where his father ('the old bastard') used to work, and he's good at his job and everyone there thinks he's great. He lives in a big, soul-less apartment in a not-too-happy marriage with his attractive wife who works in real estate and his very-retiring daughter, with whom he has a relationship based on teaching her to be tough but obedient.

But then he gets shot in a corner shop when he goes out for cigarettes, and as he recovers he has little memory of who he was or what value he saw in his former life. This is a good role for Harrison Ford, because it lets him use his one expression, a sort of intelligent-but-confused look. When he's the newer, nice Henry he has a different, softer hairstyle - the one on the poster.

Eventually he and his wife rediscover their relationship, he quits his horrible law firm (and passes some inside information to one of the plaintiffs that the firm and its client wronged), the couple take their daughter out of the strict posh boarding school where they have sent her against her will, and walk off into the sunset. It's a paean to family values over corporate values, at least for those wealthy and secure enough to choose between them.

Watched on Neflix.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Review of 'Sweet Caress'

I'm going off William Boyd a bit. He used to be a reliable mid-range story-teller, not too literary but solid and worth reading. Recently though his stuff is beginning to feel like it's written out of contractual obligation. This one is OK, though for a while in the middle I was using it to fall asleep at night, because it was reliably boring. It's a biography, and shapeless in the same way that real life is. For the most part things just happen to the main character. Every so often she makes impetuous decisions that have consequences, but there doesn't seem to be much of a relationship between the decisions and the consequences, at least in the head of the protagonist. There's lots of big stuff about the horrors of war, the secret state and so on, but it doesn't really seem to go anywhere. Oh well, it probably won't be the last Boyd I read...

Monday, June 04, 2018

Review of 'Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle'

This is a really good film about the failure of the housing market in the UK to provide housing for rent at prices compatible with the levels of wages provided by the labour market. There are lots of individual stories about how the structure of that market, and the political choices taken by successive governments, have afflicted people's lives. The decisions - notably but not only the introduction of 'right to buy' which hollowed out the stock owned by local authorities - are set out and the effects illustrated.

It's mainly a tale of misery. There is some coverage of struggles by tenants to prevent their estates being demolished or sold off, but not much sign of any of these being successful. The general air is one of inevitability in the face of overwhelming power and the 'naturalness' of the market; the film is mainly asking for more social housing to be built and offered at below-market rents to offset the 'natural' working of the market.

A few things occurred to me as a I watched.

Firstly, language - the battle is half lost when those in power can define words to mean what they want them to. "Affordable" housing is a category that doesn't actually mean people on low incomes - or even middling incomes - can afford it. "Regeneration" means clearing out the present residents, demolishing the housing stock, replacing it with something denser and worse (though not suffering from years of under-mainenance) and then bringing in new tenants or owners at much higher prices. "Consultation" is a name given to a process that includes some mechanism for soliciting the opinions of others without any obligation to take any notice of those opinions. Oh, and "luxury" flats - not actually anything to do with luxury, just private and owned instead of public and rented. The space standards in these "luxury" flats, and sometimes even the construction, is worse than what they replace.

Secondly, it's very much a bottom up view - there wasn't much analysis of the mechanisms by which this is so profitable for some companies, or how the subsidies and tax breaks given to the rich and even not-so-rich (people like me) stack the market against the people in the film. Real estate is a capital asset on which many kinds of privileges are heaped - if some of those were taken away then it wouldn't be such a fabulous place to stash money, and then prices would at least slow if not decline to more affordable levels. The shortage of property is a function of the demand side of the market, because the attractiveness of the asset class and the banks' freedom to create money means that demand will always outstrip supply. Building more homes ultimately doesn't make any difference. The utter idiocy of the 'help to buy' program illustrates this.

It would have been nice if the film had talked a bit about other 'global cities' - it focuses a lot on London. In some exactly the same process has happened. Central Paris and New York are only for very rich people now; so-called 'Yuppies' gentrify Brooklyn, which used to be for poorer people, and the latter get pushed further out. I think this started in the early 1980s as the wealthy began to move back into city centres, and they did that partly because of transport. Once car ownership reached a certain level then commuting in from the suburbs became a misery, and then it was better to live in the city centres. That's why the 'inner-cities' (an expression we don't hear so much any more) became so desirable, when they had recently been a by-word for poverty. A few cities (notably Berlin and Barcelona) have had some success in standing against this and maintaining social diversity in their centres - and rent control has been central to this. Rent control also helps to make the ownership of property less attractive, so it's a good thing on that score too.

The current property market acts as a mechanism for the distribution of wealth from poor to rich. Even if the clock were wound back to the 1970s and the state started funding the construction of social housing for rent at truly affordable levels, there would still be a transfer of wealth from renters to owners in every generation. It's worth noting that in some places (Singapore comes to mind) the state builds homes for sale on a low-interest mortgage. Perhaps we need to think about a mechanism - better than right to buy - that ensures that the transfer is stopped and perhaps even reversed.

Finally, it's probably worth saying that there's a relationship with the labour market and wage levels, and precarity, that doesn't get addressed much. The big social rented estates served a population that was mainly in work, in secure jobs. People in precarious jobs - zero-hours contracts and the like - can't afford a deposit either for rent or for buying, and won't be taken on by either landlords or lenders.

Watched at a showing organised by Stroud Against the Cuts at Lansdown Hall in Hall. Thanks for that - look how much it's set me thinking.

Review of 'The Sense of An Ending'

Poignant small book about an oldish bloke looking back on his life, the roads not taken, the consequences of choices made and not made, our inability to understand life from others' perspectives...all-round unhappiness, really.

Meticulously constructed in a voice that suggests the first person narrator is a bit...well, boring really, and aware that he is.

Doesn't need me to recommend it - it won a Man Booker.

Review of 'High Tide in Tucson'

A nice, early book of essays from Barbara Kingsolver - lots about nature and ecosystems, some really sensible stuff about relationships, and writing, and parenting, and feminism. All beautifully written, and this is before she even turned into the brilliant writer that she is now.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Review of 'The Clapper'

Slightly sad comedy about a not-very-successful bloke in LA who makes a living being a paid audience member on 'infomercials', a category of advertisment that we are spared in the UK. A chat show notices that he appears, somewhat disguised, in multiple ads and makes a running gag out of it, so that he becomes - not very happily - famous for his fifteen minutes. It intrudes on his friendships and his developing relationship with the improbably beautiful woman at the till in the garage where he gets his petrol.

A warning, if ever one was needed, to have nothing whatsoever to do with TV.

Watched on of the better films there.

Review of 'Eisenstein in Guanajato'

Peter Greenaway must have had a lot of fun making this, but the same can't really be said for the audience. It's visually striking, in a sort of hybrid Greenaway/Eisenstein sort of way...striking images, striking montage. Eisenstein is a very sympathetic, jaded virgin, at once still in love with The Revolution but losing his illusions about the USSR.

The most explicit gay sex scene I've seen outside of porn, but I guess I've had a pretty sheltered life in that respect. Not much about politics, either Soviet or Mexican, a little about Eisenstein's failed trip to the USA and his not-very-happy relationship with Upton Sinclair, who was briefly a sort of patron.

Not devoid of merit, but not worth the time spent watching it either. I put this on in the Common House in Springhill, and by the end most viewers had gone.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Review of 'Meat: A Benign Extravagance'

Well, it won't be surprising if any of my vegetarian and vegan friends don't like this book much, but it's a shame if they don't read it. It's epic in scope, fabulously well written, and full of amazingly useful detail about agriculture, carbon emissions and energy budgets. It's astonishing how much research it represents.

Ultimately whether you agree with the author's conclusions depends (I think) on the extent to which you think it's ethically acceptable to kill and eat other sentient creatures - it's not an argument with which he engages at all. But if you are vegan or vegetarian for sustainability reasons then you really ought to spend some time with this book.

It's worth noting that he argues for a 'default' level of meat consumption - he agrees it's not a very good name - by which means a diet with much less meat, based on the amount of animal protein available because of the other ways in which animals are useful in agriculture - traction, restoring soil, consuming waste, etc. He isn't standing up for cheap factory-farmed meat (or eggs or dairy).

In passing he deals with lots of other arguments about carbon sequestration, forestry vs. grassland, and about different visions of a sustainable future for humans - it's worth noting that plenty of 'ecologists' including James Lovelock describe a future dystopia in which humans are shut up in nightmare cities and fed a load of factory-produced feed, and elsewhere nature reservations allow 'Gaia' to regenerate safe from us (but perhaps not from enjoyment by our betters).

BTW if you are at all interested, there seems to be pdf available for download.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Review of 'My LIfe as a Courgette'

A really beautiful, poignant animated film about children in an orphanage. It's stop-motion animation, with plasticine, so most of the animation and the feeling that the characters communicate is by tiny little alterations in the shape of a plasticine nose or mouth - which means that it's really created by the viewer. Remarkable too in the way that a few details - strewn beer cans, for example - tell so much story in a few minutes.

Notable in the way that it celebrates non-family communities and relationships while showing that 'natural', blood relationships are sometimes awful. Early on there's some teasing of the newly arrived Courgette by the dominant kid at the orphanage, but it soon subsidises and the orphanage is an almost ideal community.

Watched at Lansdown Hall as a showing by the film club.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Review of 'Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906-1948'

This is a really, really good book. It's meticulously researched, with lots of primary and secondary sources. It's on top of the literature, acknowledging the contributions of others but maintaining a critical distance from earlier work and showing its limitations. It's primarily an academic rather than a popular or polemical work, so sometimes (mainly at the beginning and the end) there are some rather dry theoretical sections - I'm sure I would have loved those once, but now I sort of skimmed them. There are also some places when the detail became a bit overwhelming - sometimes in the alphabet soup of the various Palestinian-Arab groupings, for example.

For me, the book is most important in finally laying to rest any residual identification that I might have had with 'Socialist-Zionism'. It's clear that Labour Zionism, as practised by Mapai and its predecessors, as not a kind of socialism - not even of the Second International flavour pursued by social democratic parties in Europe and elsewhere, but rather a strand within the self-avowed colonialist project that was Zionism. Labour Zionism and its institutions, especially the Histradrut which was not a trade union movement or organisation as anyone else would recognise it, was a necessary element in delivering the Zionist project that involved the mass immigration of Jews from Europe - because it was a means to ensure that there was an economy and a labour market fit to absorb them.

In so far as it was interested in cross-communal solidarity with workers from the majority Palestinian Arab community, this was almost always with the intention of ensuring that low-wage Arab workers became less able to compete with their higher-paid Jewish counterparts. Most of the time it was utterly uninterested in such solidarity, though, and sought to build a differentiated labour market for Jewish workers through 'the conquest of labour', which included boycotts and campaigns for employers to dismiss Arabs and hire Jews instead. Reading some of the details of this, such as the campaign for construction companies to only use 'Jewish Stone', it is impossible not to feel more than a little uncomfortable.

Nevertheless the Histradrut and the various Jewish Labour parties dressed themselves in the clothes of socialism, with May Day rallies and singing of the Internationale, and appeals to Arab workers to show solidarity. Labour Zionism claimed that the mass immigration of Jews would benefit Arab workers too by raising their living standards, at the same time as it called for them to be dismissed from their jobs. This was rarely lost on the Arab workers, some of whom nevertheless showed remarkable forbearance in distinguishing between Jewish workers and the Zionist project.

Lockman resists the temptation to suggest that the professed socialism of the Zionist Socialists was merely cynical. He writes with some sympathy of the contradictions of the further reaches of the Zionist left, including first Poalei Ziyon Smol and then Hashomer Hatzair; he acknowledges that the colonialist perspective towards 'native' workers was not unique to the Zionist labour movement but characterised other imperial trade unionists too. Nevertheless, he also resists the temptation to suggest that with more goodwill and better luck the clash between Zionism and Palestinian Arab nationalism could have turned out well, or even turned out better. The trajectory of the Zionist project was always to take over the territory and to 'transfer' its then inhabitants, the Palestinian Arabs, to somewhere else. And that's what happened.