Monday, March 29, 2021

Review of 'The Electronic Elephant' by Dan Jacobson

Very mixed feelings about this book. Dan Jacobson is a very good writer, and bits of this book made me stop and put it down to reflect on the language and how beautifully it's used. I learned lots, not least about Cecil Rhodes - I'd vaguely known about him from History A Level (especially the Jameson Raid) but I hadn't been aware how big - and how nasty - a figure he had been. 

But there were things I wasn't so keen on. I think it's partly the travel writing genre. It seems to me that everyone who engages in this ends up rather sneering at the people they meet, either for their ordinariness, or their quirkiness, or for any other reason. No travel writer ever seems to be impressed by the wisdom, patience or fortitude by the people they encounter on the way - perhaps it's the fact that they aren't traveling, as the writer is, that makes them seem so unimpressive. And there's a lot of that here. Jacobson doesn't think much of the Whites of Southern Africa and their self-delusions, but he doesn't seem to like the Africans (or Indians either) that he meets. He doesn't seem to have any fellow-feeling or common humanity with the impoverished ones, and he doesn't think much of those who have clawed themselves into positions of minor power or success.

He's great on the buildings, and the landscapes, though everything is suffused with a sense that it's in a state of decline...perhaps a natural consequence of returning to somewhere that you knew in your youth. There's no feeling that anything is getting better, even though he's writing at the very moment that Apartheid is coming to an end. Curiously my only visit to South Africa was at almost the same time, and I met lots of people, Blacks and Whites, who were full of hope for what they thought was to come.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Review of 'The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind'

Watched this late last night, and it wasn't at all the film I was expecting. Perhaps because I'd flicked through the book in a shop I was expecting a booster-ish paean to entrepreneurial spirit and triumph over adversity. The last ten minutes was like that, but the preceding 90 minutes was all about the adversity - about political corruption, the introduction of cash crop production to subsidence farmers, the way that the farmers are squeezed into deforesting their land by corporations that hold all the cards. We see how hard it is for the eponymous boy to get access to education - he's thrown out of the government school when his parents can't afford the fees any more, and how dismal is the meagre school library where he does his research into electricity generation.

In the end he makes a windmill, from tree trunks and bicycle parts, that drives a salvaged electric pump to bring water to the villagers' parched fields. I was struck firstly by how visionary this was - because he'd never seen a windmill. While wind-driven pumps are common in dry landscapes in the US and in Australia, there were none where he was - there were no windmills at all. 

He might have been better building a mechanically driven water pump rather than one that generated electricity to charge batteries that would then power an electric pump, but part of his genius was that he not only understood how a dynamo worked but could work with the mechanical elements that he had - it might have turned out that the dynamo worked but the windmill flew apart or blew down. I'm humble in the face of such practical skill, which is completely foreign to me; I can't look at things and imagine them into a working system at all.

The film has a happy ending - the villagers survive the drought, and the boy gets a scholarship so that he can go first to school, and then to university in the US, and then on to give TED talks. I'm not any sort of expert on sustainable farming or hydrology, but I couldn't help wonder whether what he had invented was a system for accessing fossil water reserves, and that this was not really a sustainable solution to the farmers' cruel dilemma.

A great and compelling film, watched on BBC iPlayer.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Review of "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

Yes, I just got round to seeing this, even though everyone else saw it ages ago. I was inspired by watching Frances McDormand in Nomadland, where she was so very good. And she's great in this too, but the film is a polar opposite of Nomadland - very dark, and with really a lot of violence, and even more barely suppressed violence. 

On reflection it reminded me a bit of The Unforgiven, which I watched before I started writing reviews - but which was a pure tragedy,  in that the characters are not all bad, but the playing out of the consequences of their actions make really bad things happen, irrespective of intentions. 

The plot is simple enough - Mildred's daughter was raped and murdered seven years ago, and she's so angry with the police department's failure to catch the perpetrators that she pays to put up billboard proclaiming this failure. From this everything else follows...though strictly speaking some of what follows is the playing out of tensions that were already present rather than the direct consequences of the billboards. 

The acting is great, the cinematography and the music very evocative, and it makes America look grim and awful...racist, violent, and poor. 

Another one from informal distribution, via Chromecast and VLC

Friday, March 19, 2021

Review of 'Nomadland'

This is a really good, beautiful film about mostly old people in the US living in campervans. They're mainly very poor, and some of them do casual jobs when they can - the central character (an older woman whose husband has died, has lost her house, and actually lost her town when the mine that provided it with a living closed down) works at an Amazon warehouse, a fast food restaurant, a campsite - all on a casual basis without the baggage of employment or career.

Nothing too bad happens to her during the film...the people depicted are underclass people, but there are none of the usual underclass tropes - they aren't depicted as trash, substance abusers, drunks, or anything like that. Instead there is profound sympathy and a depiction of their solidarity and support, even to people that they don't know and might never see again. They share food, and drink and cigarettes (and those latter are not presented as moral or health disasters). The images depict a life that is sometimes hard but also sometimes idyllic. It reminded me a bit of Cory Doctorow's book 'Walkaway', and there's a portrait of van-life guru Bob Wells that suggests he has a profound understanding of how van life fits into the current moment in American capitalism. Interesting too that it's this week that the UK government has announced its plans to criminalize this lifestyle.

And a technology point. This film is not available in the UK until 30th April, when it will be streamed on the Disney platform, and nowhere else. Not a Disney subcriber, not likely to become one. Fortunately it was available on 'informal distribution' already, and in very good quality. I'm also pleased that it's possible again to stream it from the laptop in another room to the TV via Chromecast using VLC. This stopped working for a while, and then I used something called Videostream, but then that stopped working too. For a while nothing worked. Now VLC have sorted it out, and I'm very pleased.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Review of 'After the Party' by Cressida Connolly

A surprisingly enjoyable book about posh English fascists in the 1930s, in the run-up to the war and then during the war. The main character and sometime narrator (alternating sections are told by her in the late 1970s) is called Phyliss (when did you last meet someone called Phyliss?) and she's upper-upper middle class. Her husband was a Commander in the Navy during WW1, and they've been living abroad while he works for a rubber company. Now they've come back, and they have to get their children sorted out with prep schools and so on.

And they fall among Fascists. The BUF, and then the British Union when it renames itself, is a congenial home to people like them, with a certain kind of energy and mildly nationalist and pro-Imperialist views. They might have been Tories, but it doesn't feel like a big jump for them to be Fascists instead. They're not rabid Jew-haters, though they are aware that there are such people in their movement, and that doesn't bother them much. When their daughter goes on a jape in a nearby south coast town and paints the Union Movement symbol, and the letters 'PJ' - for 'Perish Judah', a Fascist slogan - on a theatre wall, it's the social stigma attached to vandalism and damage to property that upsets them, not the slogan.

It's also a book about manners and mores, and social codes among that class and its social-class neighbours. There's a certain amount of marital infidelity, some drug-taking, and lots of awareness of class markers - social snobbery, even within the Fascist movement, is a bigger thing than racism.

I was a little worried before I read it to learn from the inside cover that Cressida Connolly has 'written for Vogue, the Telegraph, the Spectator..." but her observations and her instincts are faultless. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Review of 'Margot'


Surprisingly interesting and enjoyable biopic about Margot Fonteyn, someone I'd never really thought about much at all. I didn't know about her marriage to the Panamian politico scumbag whose family seem to have supplied several presidents to the country, despite there being not much evidence that they believed in or cared about any kind of politics at all. 

There's a great moment in the film when Fonteyn takes delivery of a box of hand grenades, glances inside and then orders them to be put in the cellar. It's good on the miseries of life that dancers go through, especially the injuries and the treatments. Fonteyn danced into her sixties so that she could pay for the medical treatment that her faithless scumbag husband needed after his injuries in a drunken brawl over someone else's wife, and he maintained his relationship with his lover who moved in as his wife whenever Fonteyn was away. 

Review of 'Agency' by William Gibson

I quite enjoyed this, but I can't say for sure that I understood it properly. There were bits of the narrative that I sort of skimmed over. I enjoyed the descriptions, especially the ones that are supposed to be of the present - somehow Gibson manages to make the current world seem just as weird and distant as the far future. I liked the descriptions of the parallel universe in which Hillary wins the US election and Brexit doesn't happen, and not only because that's the account I would have preferred, but also because he illustrates well how that alternative present isn't a happy ending but just a different set of problems. 

I can't say for sure if all the stuff about branching stubs - alternative versions of the past, seen from the perspective of the future - actually makes sense or not. I suspect Gibson has it all very clear in his mind or on his storyboard, but it wasn't so to me. 

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Review of 'Rocks'

Good but mainly grim film about a young Black schoolgirl of Nigerian origin, growing up on what seems to be a South London council estate, whose mother has some sort of mental health issue and disappears (not for the first time) leaving her to care for her much-younger little brother.

The poster and the description make it look as if it's a feel-good upbeat movie about friendship between girls, and there are moments like that. But it's also bleak and depressing much of the time. Rocks's life is quite grim, and she doesn't cope very well at all once her mother goes away - there are no other adults she can turn to for help, the kindly neighbour calls social services and Rocks takes her brother away to hide, fearing (rightly) that if they are taken into 'care' they'll be split up. She makes lots of bad calls, including stealing cash from the backpack of her friend who has tired (intermittently, admittedly) to help her. 

I note in passing that the estate looks a lot like the one featured in Chewing Gum, and that Shola Aduwesi (who played Tracey's mum) appears in the photographs as Rocks's grandmother, who has moved back to Nigeria for her health.

Watched on Netflix.

Review of "Datsche"


This a German comedy, and I am beginning to suspect (a) that this is a real thing and (b) that I am never going to understand anything in that genre. Bits of fall into the 'screwball' category - the young people who are the characters are mainly pretty stupid and do stupid things that don't serve their own interests very well. There's a refugee character who provides the serious dimension and sometimes punctures the silliness, but he and they are all lovable. Even the neo-Nazi next door is more a figure of fun than a serious threat (described in the film's blurb as a 'nosy neighbour' rather than a right-wing psychopath who tries to burn the other characters and himself to death). There's partying, silly games, overcrowding in a tiny allotment summerhouse, and that sort of thing. One of the characters is a Bavarian, and I think there are some dialect and regionalist jokes that are completely inaccessible - one of the Prussian characters keeps substituting another word for his name, for example.

In the end I quite liked it, but Ruth had given up watching by then.

Watched on Amazon Prime via Chromecast and smartphone.

Monday, March 08, 2021

Review of 'Judas and The Black Messiah'


Rather good film about Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illiniois (Chicago) Black Panthers, murdered at 21 with the help of a police infiltrator. The story is mainly that of the infiltrator, how he was recruited (he was a petty criminal and blackmailed by the FBI) and rose through the ranks of the Panthers to become Hampton's bodyguard and 'captain of security'. 

Avoiding spoilers, it's a good depiction of the period and the struggle, and in particular is very good on how the Panthers were not Black nationalists or separatists but socialists (even if some of the Maoism is occasionaly a bit cringe-y). The FBI were most worried about them because they were making common cause with Latino groups like the Young Lords and even white racist immigrants from the south like the Young Patriots. The film is really good about this, not hiding from the fact that these people identified as racists and 'confederates', but showing the way that the Panthers actually saw struggle in terms of class not race.

Watched via laptop, informal distribution and VLC-renderer...which hasn't been working for a while but now it is!

Saturday, March 06, 2021

Review of "Under the Riccione Sun"

Cheesy Italian teen movie, set in the beach resort of Riccione - just up the road from Rimini, and from Cattolica where I spent some childhood holidays. It's all about kids getting off with each other, and supporting each other nicely through their romantic difficulties. Apart from the usual misunderstandings and unrequitedness nothing at all nasty happens...there are beach volleyball competitions, everyone is beautiful (even the blind young man who is on holiday with his over-protective mum), and it all ends happily. 

Watched on Netflix.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Review of "Loco Por Ella"

A rather unusual Spanish romcom with a mental illness theme. Adrian is a cynical journalist who works on a clickbait website; he's good at it but seems to despise what he does, even though he also despises (and is despised by) his colleagues who want to proper journalism about serious subjects. There's a great performance by his cynical and despicable boss, who doesn't even know that what they are after is "clicks" - he keeps calling it "clips".

But while on a bet to pick up a woman in a bar, Adrian is picked up by a different woman, and has the night of his life and then falls in love, only she doesn't want to have any kind of  long term relationship. He seeks her out, finds she's an inmate in a mental institution, and then gets himself admitted so he can pursue her.

There's lots of interesting stuff going on, not least in the serious and sensible discussion of what mental illness is like and how the sufferers deserve to be treated. The psychologist who runs the place is an interesting and imperfect character but the film treats her as an intelligent and sensible professional with good expertise and insight - and treats expertise as superior to the 'knowledge' of family and friends...exactly the opposite of what a British or American film would do.

Plenty of humour and romance but also a serious and thoughtful film. And an opportunity to practice Spanish -- the people speaking on this film were much easier to understand than on some Spanish films I've tried recently.

Fun fact: as I thought, it's shot in Barcelona and Argentona, but it's entirely Spanish - no sign at all that it's Catalunya. Is that making a political point?

Watched on Netflix.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Review of 'Kinamand'

Odd Danish film about a (not-very-good) plumber who separates from his wife...well, she separates from him really, because he's not very rewarding as a partners, and then spends his evenings eating in a cheap Chinese restaurant, where he ends up fixing the plumbing, befriending the owner, and the going through a marriage of convenience with the man's sister. 

The title means 'Chinaman', because that's what one of the other white customers of the Chinese restaurant - another isolated and bitter older man - calls him when he discovers that the plumber eats there every night. I don't know if it has the same racist connotations in Danish as it does in English...from the character I'd say it does, but I'm not sure.

I'd say it's not quite sure what gender it belongs in, but it was quite engaging and moving.

Watched on Netflix.

Review of "Such a Small World!: My Years in Shanghai" by Georgia Noy

 At one point in her life Georgia Noy was looking at a career change - she was thinking of becoming an event planner - and instead of endorsing her plan, the career psychologist that she went to see suggested that she become an anthropologist. Reading this book it's not hard to see why; she's such a good observer of the little details that define a culture, and the way that such details can be markers and boundaries between one group's experience and anothers.

There's lots to enjoy here. It's partly a historical document, because she tells what it was like to be away from home, and in a very specific place, in the years just before the internet and the web made the experience of being anywhere in particular much less specific. Now she'd be able to order stuff online, consume media from her country of origin, keep in touch with friends and family back home with Zoom and Skype and social some ways there's a big divide that runs through the life of our generation (well, I'm a bit older than her) - the time before all that, and now. If you moved away before, you wrote letters - maybe you typed them, perhaps even on a computer, but you still posted them afterwards.

Some of the narrative is about what it's like to be an expat, living as part of a relatively small and enclosed community that is separate from the life of the host country. She writes about the lack of curiousity of the Americans in her compound, and I can testify to the same thing in the group of Americans that I worked with in the early 1990s in Hong Kong...I learned more about the place in three weeks than they had wanted to do in three months.

But she's not just an expat, she's an expat Israeli, and she's exploring what she has in common with - and in what ways she in different from - other Jewish expats in the community. There are lots of things that she never had to think about the kids take Yom Kippur off from school, even though she's not religious? Which seder to attend, the Jewish community one or the Israeli consulate one.

This is a really enjoyable read, with some bonus chapters about the quest to find tombstones from the now-destroyed Jewish cemetry in Shanghai, and her husband's reflections on how it was to set up a subsidiary of a foreign company, and work with local staff and clients, in early C21st China.