The force is ever with us

 

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Movies changed forever, beginning in 1975 and culminating in 1977.  Two films, both of which ‘experts’ dismissed as wastes of time and money, appeared and film-making, and watching were never the same again.  It is not the place of this post to discuss whether or not that is a good thing, but the release of Jaws in ’75 and Star Wars in ’77 convinced studios and the accountants that run them, that a money spent on a big film with an even bigger initial release, could bring profits the like of which were unknown to the great studio moguls of the ‘golden age’ of Hollywood.

But while Jaws was an example of an old-fashioned story, with old-fashioned effects (remember how bad the shark really looks now) but a modern sense of story and editing, Star Wars showed us things we had never seen before.  Building on special effects developed a decade earlier by Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), George Lucas, using the latest in motion-control cameras, travelling mattes, and modelling, created a whole new galaxy of wonders–wrapped around a hoary old story of good v evil, damsels in distress, and coming of age.

 

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Thirty eight years later, the force, and the story, is still with us, minus a few actors with a few back for the ride, familiar plot-lines and, but the original creator, George Lucas missing in action.  Famously selling off the ‘franchise’ for billions to the ever-expanding Disney empire, the oft-told, and nearly run-aground tale has been, in the current parlance, re-booted by that master shoemaker, J. J. Abrams.

I can categorically state that Star Wars, The Force Awakens (2015), is the best sixth sequal ever.  That doesn’t place it in exalted company, mind.  Remember Saw 3D (2010), Friday the 13th, part VII:  The New Blood (1988), and I’m sure there must have been a seventh Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street.  And if you think about it, Diamonds Are Forever (1971) is the seventh Bond, and was hardly worth the wait.  Connery in a pink tie and Jill St. John.  Need I say more?

The above sounds like the start of a sneering diatribe about the latest behemoth dominating our multiplexes.  But it isn’t.  Star Wars (forget all the qualifiers–what else should we call it?), is a great movie (with all the caveats and qualifiers that that phrase includes).  I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the fact that what I’m about to write was already in my head, for the most part, well before seeing the actual picture.

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This is not a review of Star Wars.  What would be the point?  Anyone who wants to see it will have likely made up their mind before sitting down in the dark (or to the endless adverts, and sadly few trailers, that precede any movie.  Most will come expecting to, and actually, loving it.  Some (George Lucas?) will be disappointed, but that is for his psychiatrists and accountant to deal with.  Otherwise, what is the point in doing an in-depth analysis of what is as much a financial and sociological event as it is a cinematic one?

But a few things probably should be said, just to establish that I actually did watch the thing and that I paid attention.  First, rather than a re-boot, it’s a re-make of the first film.  Maybe not shot for shot, but all the old elements are there.  Lonely droid, lonely orphan teen-ager, this time a girl, desert planet, crazy creatures and other species in trading post and bar, that retro feel that is de regeur for all space films these days (except for the woeful middle three of the franchise), search of someone, dazzling space battles, will-they, won’t-they love angle, and climactic light sabre battle.  If these elements weren’t in the new version, there would likely have been rioting in the ailses (don’t laugh, they did it at the premier of the Rites of Spring–look it up).

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©Lucasfilm 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm 2015

If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I mean, and if you haven’t, it doesn’t matter.  No, I’m writing this because it is a great example of why some films work and some don’t.  Why the first three, in decreasing quality, succeeded, and why the prequels did not.  It is why anything we see on screen moves us or leaves us cold.  Excites us or drives us to our phones.  Stimulates us or is forgotten by the time we pay the parking fee.

This one works because…wait for it…it has a good script, honest performances, and competent direction and editing.  It’s a good story, told well and with conviction but without sanctimony.  Obviously, what I’m saying is that the previous three, as beautiful as they were to look at, and as anticipated as they were for story exposition, were dead on the screen (obviously, you may choose to argue with this opinion, but you’ll have your work cut out for you).

Star Wars (the original) was striking because we had never seen anything like that before.  The effects were new, the technology was new, and the story, though old, was universal enough to complement the visual spectacle.  Unfortunately, now you can see effects like those on television.  The latest developments in CGI are seen in Transformers films.  We’ve seen space battles before.  We’ve seen sword fights before (has anything ever topped The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) or Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973))?  What we always need, is a story.

The re-boot tells its story with wit, economy and a script that doesn’t leave you cringing even in the more sentimental segments.  The actors are believable saying these words (does anyone not feel for poor Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson trying to get their mouths around the dross in the Phantom Menace–you could literally see McGregor pining for the words of Irvine Welsh and Neeson thinking that the Taken trilogy makes him sound like Noel Coward by comparison).  Exposition is cleanly inserted into the script and just enough back-story is provided to make sense of the present.  I’m not sure what those who haven’t seen the previous films will make of it, but odds are it won’t matter.  And after all, how many people seeing this one will have missed the others?

So we’re all in agreement:  the new version works and is a very good, even great movie of this genre.  So what?  Why does any of that matter.  George Lucas may have to look in the mirror and admit that he’s really a very poor director and writer, but a very good mogul and now he’s billions richer because of his sale of the franchise, so don’t go worrying too much about his feelings.

J. J. Abrams remains the king of the re-boots, but like Tarantino, is he really an artist and creator, or is he only a modifier, piggy-backing on other, original work, that he can indeed improve upon.  But what of his own vision.  He is clearly a force in television.  And yet a glance at IMDB shows his future projects as…another Star Trek, another Star Wars (why not) and a Cloverfield sequel (why).  Are we likely to see something by him at the Watershed anytime soon (snob alert)?  Probably not.  And that’s ok.  But like Quentin, you have to wonder what their output would be if they were as curious about all sorts of things as say, Spielberg.  Yes, he’s horribly sentimental and now a bit hit and miss, but he remains the most versatile director of our age.  Just wondering.

And what of Star Wars, the Force, and the whole mythology.   Good v. Evil, and the line between the two, is always something worth exploring.  Science fiction and fantasy are not about the future, but about the present.  How we see ourselves now and where we think we might go.  The best stories take our current fears–Russian invasion, pandemic disease, the threat of world annihilation, and translate these into stories that either solve, or show the consequences of our present actions.

So what about Star Wars, The Force Awakens?  You don’t have to look too closely to see parallels with the crisis in the Middle East, the hubris of great technology (note that despite the presence of inter-stellar travel, many still live a subsistence existence in this future), the impotence of democracies in the face of unified and fanatical despotism, and the hair’s breath between power for good and the corrupting nature of its excess.

Is that too fanciful and high-falutin for this space opera?  I don’t think so.  We continue to watch because the story continues to illustrate things we need pictured.  Will the world change because of the Republic, the rebels, and the–can’t seem to remember the name of the new bad guys–New Order?  No that was a seventies/eighties band–Last Order?   No that comes around 10:50.  Well, the bad guys.  Probably not.  But stories continue to remind us of where we are, where we might be headed, and the best ones inform our decisions about the kind of world we want to live in.

Watch and learn (or just have a good time).

But what I’m really looking forward to is The Revenant!

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Thumbs up…

 

 

I have a love-hate relationship with Netflix.  Yes, it’s allowed my and me to enjoy, at our leisure,     Breaking Bad, House of Cards, or films like Calvary (2014).  But Netflix is an app that offers a world of choice and a universe of frustration.  First, there is no proper search function, so there is the interminable scrolling through ‘New to Netflix,’ ‘Russell’s recent choices,’ and ‘because you watched 28 Dresses.’

Second, there is the inevitable paralysis of choice.  So many titles, such poorly written captions, and so much repetition.  And don’t get me started about the immediate cutting away from the end-credits to give me ‘more choices.’  I don’t know how, but I have no doubt there is money involved in this near criminal practice.  Actors and technicians use credits as parts of their cvs .  As more and more films have completely eliminated the opening credits, the one place of recognition for their efforts is in the final credit roll.  And nerds like me like to know who was in the film, what that song was that was played half-way through during that extended montage, and maybe who the best-boy was.  It’s not as bad as colourisation, but it’s close.  A desecration of the film-viewing experience.  And so I emit a primal scream of frustration.

But amongst the dross, the repetition, the frustration, is the gem.  I found it yesterday, during a particularly indolent afternoon.  Under documentaries, somewhere next to Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends and TED Talks.  And for the next two hours, I sat transfixed, crying, laughing, remembering.  And all was forgiven.

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Life Itself (2014) is a documentary made about Roger Ebert.  If you don’t know who that is, his picture is on one of the pages of this blog, one of my three favourite writers o, films.  He was one of the great film critics of the second half of the twentieth century, and arguably the most influential.  He brought film criticism, rather than the quick blurb and review, to the great public, while still writing with skill, passion, knowledge and occasional poetry.

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He is probably most famous as one-half of the team of Siskel and Ebert, who began their partnership on public television in Chicago in a program called Sneak Previews.  They parlayed that into a syndicated program shown all over the country, and their ‘two thumbs up’ became one of the most coveted marks of approval for any film.

So much for a film geek like me.  But a two-hour film, just about a movie critic?  And in other hands, this might have been of completest interest and nothing else.  But.

But Life Itself is actually a love story and one of the best films I’ve seen in recent years on how to come to terms with death.  For in 2002, three years after his on-screen partner of 20 years, Gene Siskel, had died of a brain tumour, Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.  This would lead to him losing his jaw, his ability to speak, eat or drink, and his mouth and chin literally becoming a vestigial organ.

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The documentary cuts between old clips from his programs, interviews with friends, and shots of Ebert and his wife Chaz in rehab.  A fractured hip put him back in hospital for the seventh time (a spinal tumour has metastasized to his hip, causing the break).  Close-ups of Ebert, smiling, typing into his computer, cracking jokes and answering the director’s questions (sometimes acting as director himself) allow us literally to see through his mouth to his neck.  There is nothing else there.

Despite working in acute hospitals for the past 20 years, often with patients with severe disabilities and life-threatening and shortening diseases , I continually marvel at the ability of people to persist with conditions that would cause me, very likely, to give up.  Life Itself, I think, is about just that.  Life is worth living, despite the very worst of its vicissitudes, if there is love, and purpose.  Ebert had love–a loyal and caring wife and an absolute passion for films that  made him every bit as prolific after his loss of speech and the ability to present television programs, as before.  His web-site continues as a store-house of his past, Pulitzer Prize winning work, and a memorial to this gifted man whose obsession for film found him working and reviewing only days before his death.

http://www.rogerebert.com/

Ebert was a talented, egotistical, generous and passionate man, physically and figuratively larger than life.  Life Itself is a worthy tribute to his complexity, but is also a superb exploration of what makes a good life, and death.

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Two thumbs up, indeed.

 

You say you want a revolution…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Well you know, we all want to change the world…

Revolution and rock and roll go together like Marx and Engels, Fidel and Che, Lennon (the British one) and McCartney.  Hard to think of right-wing anthem besides the Horst Wessel Song.  Rock and roll has produced a mixed bag of righteous exhortations to a fight for a better world and songs for mounting something other than the barricades:

If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao

You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow. Revolution

Kind of sums up the real revolutionary ideology of the rock and roller, doesn’t it.

The sixties managed to marry real revolution, (Cuba, Viet Nam, Kampuchea, tho where revolution stops and civil war, and then genocide starts, is open to question) with a greater awareness in music.

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming

We’re finally on our own

This summer I hear the drumming

Four dead in Ohio–Neil Young

What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly saying, “hooray for our side”–Stephen Stills

Don’t forget, the Marseillaise was the first pop song to lead a revolution:

Aux armes, citoyens!
Formez vos bataillons!
Marchons! Marchons!
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!

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It was a hit just about two hundred years before The Levellers (the topic of this week’s blog) formed, appropriately in a pub in Brighton when Mark Chadwick, the lead singer, and Jeremy Cunningham, the exotically-coiffed bass player, realised they both would like to be in a band–just after the lead singer got the girl both were after (plus ca change, as Trotsky said).

 

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http://www.google.co.uk/url

All of this comes to mind following a recent screening of a film about the Levellers called A Curious Life (2014).  Eschewing the usual ‘rockumentary’ techniques, and pitfalls, former Chumbawumba front man turned director, Dunstan Bruce, mostly ambles along with Jeremy, in the filmic equivalent of his stream of consciousness chat.  He’s a very engaging host, taking us to The Metway, the former clock factory and now heart of Leveller’s Central, which is to say, there is an art room where Jeremy paints and prints some of the Leveller’s art work, an ‘archive,’ which is actually a mound of boxes and loose papers that one day may just provide some documentary evidence about the band, but now is the home of mice and a random collection of stuff, a studio, and a bar.  The real archive, if you will, is in the home of Jeremy’s parents, who manage to steal the show with a combination of bemused pride and gogglebox-style banter.

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Other members get a look in, including Steven Boakes, didgeridoo player and my brother-in-law, hunting in his attic for a battered VHS copy of his appearance on The Big Breakfast, and Chadwick relating how he called Michael Eavis a cunt from the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, and then hid when he heard Eavis was looking for him. That the band was invited back is testament to their popularity, and Eavis’ comment that ‘we are very forgiving.’

Less forgiving was the band’s relationship with the music media of the day.  Filmed in, and on, a toilet, Jeremy reads from some less than favourable reviews:  one critic slammed the single 15 Years, saying ‘it should be fifteen years without chance of parole at her majesty’s pleasure.’  Clever, but not likely to endear them with the band.

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The Levellers wear their politics on their album sleeves.   Not surprising for a band whose initial appearances at Glastonbury were at the Traveller’s field.  Jeremy talks ruefully about their first appearance on the main-stage, the same year the Traveller’s are barred from the site.  Riding to the gig with them, he is forced to hitchhike to meet up with the band, prompting Chadwick’s use of both ‘f’ and ‘c’ words, despite BBC filming of the event.

In the end, though, the film evokes a wistful, nostalgic view of idealism mixed with hard realities of the rise and fall of recording success, battles with chemical stimulation and maybe just a whiff of disillusionment.   ’25 years of subsidised dysfunctionality ‘ Steven Boakes has described it.

And the revolution?  It’s in the lyrics, though maybe not exactly how Mao, or Lenin, or St Che would have it:

Was then we planned the revolution,
To make things better for all time,
When Guevara said “That’s crazy”,
And ordered up a bottle of wine.  What a Beautiful Day

And there’s only so much a band can do:

And all the problems of the world
Won’t be solved by this guitar
And they won’t stop coming either
By the life I’ve had so far  One Life

Che gets a look in with the elegiac Happy Birthday Revolution:

We paint him on buildings
With sadness in his eyes
If we suffer hungry days
Then we call it sacrifice

Some say his dream is full of holes
We have dignity and pride
We have independence
Or is it just a Yankee lie

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Well, the Yankees have finally seen the light, or at least noticed when looking over the fence in Guantanamo, that the Fidelistas and Guevaristas are still there, even though the only place to see Che is at the cinema or on the wall of a right-on university dorm room.  Rock and roll, in general, and The Levellers in particular, didn’t force this particular revolution in geo-politics.  That’s usually a process of timing and expediency.  Music has less tangible effects, and the Levellers know this:

And we’ll petrol Bomb the state
We’ll blow away the hate
But we’ll do it in our minds
If we can take the time  Carry Me

A Curious Life shows a band that, despite the pitfalls of ego, changing musical tastes, and chemical distractions, has persisted, lives, more or less, according to its stated ideals, and still has energy (as even the sitting-down acoustic set that followed shows) and a voice and power to move people, if not to man the barricades, at least to think about why they may still be needed.

The film ends with Jeremy on a busy street, needing to stop into ASDA.  Not exactly a rock and roll ending, but rather sweet for this soul that has lived the rock and roll life, dreamt of revolution and lived to tell the tale.

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Don’t you know it’s gonna be, all right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The stations of the cross

 

 

I’ve been trying to write this blog for months now.  Not this specific one, but something about religion, film, belief, current event, Boca Haram (or is that Procol Harum?), Al Shebab’s Kebabs and the revolutionary movement previously known as Isis.  I have two or three percolating in my drafts but just haven’t hit on the right thing.  Maybe tonight will be the one.  I’ve been in my cottage, watching Bruce Springsteen videos which is about as close to a religious experience as I get these days.

I’m spurred on by the tragic news of the three British Muslim girls who have apparently made their way to Syria to fight or fuck for the Islamic state.  No, I’m sure that’s not what they’ve gone for, but in the end, that’s more than likely what this most sexist of movements will use these sad teenagers for.  Oh, they’ll be ‘brides’ but somehow I can’t imagine their views on the movement and the way forward will be seriously solicited.

I have a frequently articulate opinion about teenagers (usually pertaining to the male of the species) that they are just chemistry sets of testosterone wandering about bubbling with anxiety, hormonal aggression and stupidity and that adulthood comes not a minute too soon.  Somehow in this reverse ageism, I forget about girls and the fact that they face the same bizarre evolutionary trials that makes survival seem anything but a sure thing.

Let me explain.  It’s not surprising that the bulk of recruits to ISIS, Islamic State, or the Caliphate (isn’t just like an organisation run by teenagers that they’re constantly changing their name) are teenage boys attracted by the extreme ideology, feeling of belonging and the right to brandish the coolest weapon ever invented (the AK-47–Gospodin Kalashnikov has a lot to answer for).  Of course teenagers want to join up and shoot things, people, infidels, monsters, aliens, whatever.

What makes this newest story interesting is the fact that these were girls, obviously conservative Muslims, but clearly westernised.  No indication from the families that there was anything untoward in their behaviour.  They were good girls, good students, good Brits by all accounts.  And now they’ll be good handmaidens to the jihadis.  How sad.  What else can one say.  Undeveloped brains are easy prey to extreme ideologies.  Which of course, explains a lot about UKIP.

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My film of the week has nothing to do with jihadis or Muslim extremism, or even teenage angst.  It actually involves real religion, real belief, and an exploration of the limits and virtues of faith.  The film is Calvary (2014), by John Michael McDonough, starring the ever-brilliant Brendon Gleeson (and we can excuse the bizarre performance in Kingdom of Heaven (2005)).

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Briefly, the plot involves a Catholic priest in a small village in County Sligo, Ireland.  We open on the priest in confession, listening to a parishioner whom he evidently recognises by voice, though we will not be aware (at least I wasn’t) of his identity until the end, who informs the priest that he was severely abused by a priest for five years as a youth.  When asked if he wants to make a complaint, the man says the priest in question is dead, and after all, what difference would it make.  What will make a difference, the man avers, is the death of a good priest.  At this point he informs his confessor that he will kill him in one week and makes an appointment at the local beach for the next Sunday.

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What follows is the week of Gleeson’s priest in which he goes through his daily routine, has a visit from his daughter (he was a lay person until the death of his wife), encounters various parishioners whose belief is waning if not positively absent, and seems to reaffirm his even as his parish is literally burning down around him.

It would be unfair to say more about this fine film.  Suffice it to say, nothing is Hollywood but is deeply truthful, deeply moving and the closest film to describing true belief since Gods and Men (2010).

Hollywood (no, this isn’t a Hollywood film–more a combination of Irish and British film making but let’s use Hollywood as a catch-all for the film industry and hope no one is too offended) has a strange relationship to belief and religion.  Being an industry started and largely run by Jewish immigrants for a largely protestant public, its notion of religion was largely Catholic.  Priests, nuns, missions, cathedrals were far more prevalent in most filmed stories of religion than any non-Catholic denomination.  Maybe it’s because the liturgy is at-once filmic and dramatic, and the costumes are immediately recognisable.  Maybe it’s because the Catholic brand of Christianity is simple in its beliefs and practices, whereas Protestantism is complex and bookish.

In any event, Catholics get the big look in and Protestants are relegated to snake-handling hicks and rubes to be defeated by the arguments of the clever-clog Clarence Darrows and their ilk.

That I think the former Hitler-Jungen Pope, when he came to Britain and Ireland, should have come in sackcloth and ashes for the sins of his church doesn’t change my view of this fine film (we are finally back to Calvary and the as noted, the sins of the Fathers has not been ignored).  The name, and my title should give you an idea of the metaphor.  Very interesting, among many interesting things of this film, is its portrayal of a very rural Ireland.  These movies have typically had flawed but believing parishioners.  This films suggests few of the attending members actually have any belief whatsoever.  In fact, they seem very like a typical Anglican  congregation.  I don’t know whether this is a true state of affairs for rural Ireland or the filmmaker’s conceit, but it makes for a very different experience.

Gleeson’s Father James is a very human, very flawed, but very devout servant to his reluctant flock.  And though he believes in his Church’s tenants, he believes much more in his God.  It is this belief that sustains him through the agonies of his own passion.

I don’t believe.  I never believed in any way that this Catholic priest might believe.  And yet I can’t help but admire his integrity and his vocation.  This is a film that works on multiple levels and adds to Gleeson’s amazing Irish work.

I can’t believe, but I believe this character.  And isn’t that what acting is all about?

And if nothing else, the scenery is breath-taking.  Visit Ireland, indeed.

 

Of Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs

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…I can see by your coat my friend you’re from the other side

Just one thing I got to know, can you tell me please…

who won…?

Wooden Ships, David Crosby

The first thing the survivors, or the would-be survivors do, is walk.  Cars are abandoned on the clogged freeways, like so much plaque in an already sclerotic artery, just waiting to stroke.  The walking rarely has an objective–it is action in the face of hopelessness, and it usually results in a further culling…culling of the rest into…predators, victims, and the lone heroes.

Walking suggests a refusal to give in or up.  The appropriately titled, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, is bleaker than Dartmoor on a foggy winter’s afternoon, in a driving rain.  Not only is the hero and his son perpetually walking, but they walk in what must be a constant rain of ash, the source of which is never revealed.  Even arrival at a beach, a blessing after the frigid trek through mountains, brings little warmth.  But they remain on the road,  hoping for some eventual rest.  At the end, we’re still not sure there is such a place.

Yes, we’re still talking Armageddon here, a topic I can’t quite get out of my head.  There are any number of stories, songs, films or books that use this as a theme.  And the thought of survival, and the measures needed, have always been just below the surface in our culture.   At lunch, I mentioned the book, Station Eleven, to a friend, who replied that she had several friends who were frequently speaking of some end time, some need to prepare, move to the country, store food, begin target practice?

An episode of the 60s classic, ‘The Twilight Zone’ has a family, safe in their fall out shelter fighting off their neighbours who are on the outside.  Is community the first, well, second victim of destruction?  It is if our stories are any indication.

How easy it is, now, to forget that for anyone my age (somewhat shy of a bus pass, but not far), the idea of the end was never far away from our consciousness.  I used to live in a house with a fall out shelter (though it might have been euphemised into a storm shelter, I wasn’t fooled).  In the fifties, children practiced ‘duck and cover,’ one of the more mendacious government training programs in a long history of lies.  I once did a story on the evacuation plan for Knoxville, Tennessee (it was a prime target apparently, located only twenty miles from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory).  If the man in charge was anything to go by, Knoxville was doomed.

Nuclear disaster and paranoia fed the films and television of the fifties and sixties.  I’ve already mentioned ‘The Twilight Zone,’ source for some of the most poetic television writing you will find this side of David Milch and ‘Deadwood.’  Another episode, ‘Two,’ found the eponymous pair the last survivors after a nuclear exchange, an Adam and Eve of the post-atomic age.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), sent a man and his robot to warn us away from our doom.  On the Beach (1959) showed us life at the end, waiting for the inevitable fall out to find Australia (as places to see out the life of the world, beats the hell out of Tierra del Fuego).

Ironically, it was the presence of all those missiles, all those submarines parked just off-shore, all of those planes sitting at Def-Con whatever, that probably saved us.  Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD–no irony needed here) actually seemed to work.  No matter how bat-shit crazy the leaders in the Kremlin (or in the White House–Nixon actually wanted the Russians to believe he was a bit unhinged and might actually push that mythical button), neither really wanted to risk all-out war, do the horrible math that suggested enough would survive a first-strike to make it worth all those who wouldn’t.

No film of the era plays out this notion better than Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Stangelove (1964) (or can you really be bothered to write the sub-title?).  Here is General Buck Turgidson describing the options to President Muffley:

Turgidson:

Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now, the truth is not always a pleasant thing, but it is necessary now make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless, distinguishable post-war environments: one where you got twenty million people killed, and the other where you got a hundred and fifty million people killed.

Muffley:

You’re talking about mass murder, General, not war.

Turgidson:

Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say… no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh… depended on the breaks.

In the end, not too many missiles, but an accident of timing, and one lunatic with his finger on a small but lethal trigger, brings about the end.  And Vera Lynn sings us to oblivion.

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The word that Mrs. Bronson is unable to put into the hot, still, sodden air is ‘doomed,’ because the people you’ve just seen have been handed a death sentence. One month ago, the Earth suddenly changed its elliptical orbit and in doing so began to follow a path which gradually, moment by moment, day by day, took it closer to the sun. And all of man’s little devices to stir up the air are now no longer luxuries – they happen to be pitiful and panicky keys to survival. The time is five minutes to twelve, midnight. There is no more darkness. The place is New York City and this is the eve of the end, because even at midnight it’s high noon, the hottest day in history, and you’re about to spend it in the Twilight Zone. 

Rod Serling’s opening monologue from ‘The Midnight Sun, Season 3 of The Twilight Zone

The events of 1989 and after seemed to make the fear  of blowing us into oblivion obsolete.  So nuclear was replaced by ecological fears, and this remains so today.  ‘The Twilight Zone,’ used to scaring us with explosives, saw the fear value in a destruction completely beyond our control.  Nature, turning against us.

But our impact on that environment is a much better story for film and story, the stray asteroids and volcanoes not withstanding.  I won’t bore you with a list or litany of planetary disasters waiting to happen, though there have been some interesting ones, and some howlers.

Silent Running (1972), helmed by the effects genius behind 2001, Doughlas Trumbell, gives us a ship with the last trees on board, and a slightly unhinged Bruce Dern (sorry for the redundancy).  From the sublime to the ridiculous, M Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008), has a very angry Earth killing people where they stand, to Noah (2013), by supposed auteur Darren Aronofsky, just downright silly, as a blighted earth is destroyed, and Russell Crowe thinks he’s on a mission from God.  I have no jokes; the film is sufficiently laughable.  And let’s not forget Roland Emmerich’s effects-fests of The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and 2012 (2009).

Sadly, our own reality is that a combination of ecological and military (if not nuclear) catastrophe ends the world (at least the known one) for so many of our Earth brothers and sisters.  I’m talking, of course, about the wandering millions, the Volkswanderung, of the third world.  They’re the ones we see, taking to the road after famine and war have decimated their homes.  We don’t need world-wide holocaust to show us what things could (will?) be like at the end.  We see it on our flat screens most nights.  And we know there are the wanderers, the predators, and sadly, very few lone heroes.  At the end, it will be all of us, walking to the end of the world.

And I feel fine…!?

Birthday party, cheesecake, jellybean, boom

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I’ve been thinking of the Apocalypse.  It’s one of those things, frequently talked of but never arriving…like an NHS pay rise.  I may have mentioned before, an upcoming film with the ever subtle Nicholas Cage, called Left Behind (2015).  This is the movie version of a popular novel series in the Christian Lit niche.  All about the rapture and those, as the title suggests, who are left behind to suffer the thousand year reign of the antichrist.  One of those ideas that the literal like to think of as scriptural.  And the leisure suited preacher brigade are big at seeing signs and portents all around us, because we are in the end times, aren’t we?

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We’ll see whether Left Behind makes something of its ludicrous premise–chances are no Mimi Rogers swinging as in The Rapture (1991).

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But what has gotten me musing on things apocalyptic is a very good book called Station Eleven (2014).  Set just before and just after a deadly flu epidemic that wipes out 99 percent of the world, it concerns a small group of people who accidentally connect just before, and the repercussions of those meetings after.  As I said, a very good book, but certainly not unique in a genre rich with imaginings about the after world.

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Religion figures in the story, as it does in many others.  The classic A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) describes a post-Armageddon world in which an entire religion (very Catholic in appearance) grows up around the legend of a survivor names Leibowitz, until all of western history is recapitulated, including the end of this new world.  Religion binds, but doesn’t seem to save.  As Ned Flanders is raptured, Homer Simpson realises that hell isn’t other people, it’s a barbecue where they’ve run out of hotdogs.

The end seems to arrive in two ways, well three if you want to count interstellar by-passes:  either humanity-decimating wars (On The Beach (1959), Mad Max (1979), The Postman (1987)) or by nature or pestilence, sometimes man-made (The Stand (1978), The Children of Men (1992), 2012 (2009), Waterworld (1995)).

Common to most of these stories is a definite breakdown (in every sense of the word) in society:  there is the wandering hero, the organised groups (sometimes religious in nature), and the predators.  It is often difficult to tell the organised from the predators.

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An, underappreciated little film starring a young Don Johnson called A Boy and His Dog (1975) has a wandering hero and his talking dog stumble upon a seeming oasis in the post-apocalyptic wasteland.  When he learns that he is desperately needed to add variety to a very tired gene pool of the community (nostalgically called Topeka) he agrees to throw himself into the work–until he learns that he will be literally milked for his essence.  This film, a former staple of late-night repertory cinema, is an obvious allegory about the good of the group versus individual freedom and the willingness of some, in the name of a greater good, to do great evil.

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The predators are only more evil in degree, than the forces of organisation and order.   Is there a difference between the high-octane speed junkies of Mad Max II (1981), or the bloody minded burgeoning capitalists of Bartertown in Beyond Thunderdome (1985)?  It may be in the interest of good story-telling, but it also suggests and confirms, as I have mentioned many times in this blog, that artists have very little faith in the common man.  In story after story, left to their own devices, people opt for the easy, the familiar, and turn a blind eye to oppression, as long as it’s ‘for the greater good,’ meaning their own good.

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As always, story returns to the lone hero, or the small group of lone heroes.  And these must often leave the group, once order has been restored.  Established in westerns, the theme recurs in our end of the world stories. In John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Ethan leaves the house, framed by the soon to be closing doors, stepping into what looks, from a modern perspective, very much like a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

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End of the world stories, of course, are not about the end of the world.  They are about our world, and the things that make us human, civilised, moral.  Or the things that separate us, break us down, force us to lose our humanity.  We don’t need fatal plagues or Ragnarok for that.  But these stories force us to look in the mirror  and to think–what would I do?  Who would I be:  fascistic civiliser, predator, or hero?

Or will we just scream when we find out Satan’s barbecue has just run out of hot dogs?

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ps:  big prizes for anyone guessing the source of the title:  big prizes meaning a lifetime subscription to this blog.  NO GOOGLING!

 

Clear as Noir

 

She walked into my office, a dame with legs that reached all the way down to the ground, which was a good thing, since otherwise, she’d have had trouble coming through the door.  She had the look of someone who was used to being looked at, and liked it.  I looked.  And liked.  And she liked me liking.  And looking.  And then she asked where the ladies room was, and I went back to reading my latest copy of the Ladies Home Journal, a shot of wheat germ non-alcoholic rye washing down a bagel as dry as yesterday’s Radio 4 comedy…

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0k, apologies to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet but the City of Angels is a different place from when they were writing, and most of the best pastiche has already been written.  We’re talking about hardboiled detective fiction, the fodder of countless film noir pictures of the forties and fifties, and an inexhaustible run of pastiches and homages (what the hell is the plural of those two words anyway?) of later years.

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What you get when you whistle…

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It’s ok by me….

Two of my favourite films of all time are the brilliant Big Sleep (1946), with Bogart and Bacall, directed by Howard Hawks, and  The Long Goodbye (1973), by Robert Altman, and starring Elliot Gould when he was the hippest actor in Hollywood.  Both stories were by Chandler, but both were radically changed by Hollywood and the men who put them on film.  Famously, William Faulkner who wrote the  screenplay to the Bogart film, couldn’t even tell who dunnit.  And the Altman version is, after all, an Altman film, an updating to the early seventies of the Chandler tale of murder and betrayal.  Both are deserved classics and should be watched over and over again, as I have.

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Which brings me to Inherent Vice (2014), the latest from the highly touted, though possibly a bit too highly, Paul Thomas Anderson.  Taken from a novel by Thomas Pynchon, it is the shaggy detective story about a hirsute gumshoe tracking down the missing lover of his former girlfriend (and that roundabout of a sentence is as clear an explanation of the plot  as I can manage; one that makes Byzantine seem straightforward).  Joachin Phoenix is the mutton-chopped shamus (you have to use these synonyms for detectives–there’s a rule), operating in a web of conspiracy and a cloud of hash smoke.

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The newest look in hair fashion

I haven’t read the novel and have no personal knowledge of Pynchon’s work.  I gather that much of the voice over, spoken by a character who may or may not actually be a part of the story, and also dialog is taken straight from the novel, a story as clear as the Kabbala.  Don’t try to follow the plot; I’m not sure there is one.  The banter is clever, if necessarily slurred and tangential.  The violence is infrequent but intense (not unlike the infinitely superior Long Goodbye) and the photography is gorgeous.

There are two egregious scenes of a sexual nature (as the pre-movie rating card so tastefully describes sex scenes) and one wonders if the director of Boogie Nights (1997) doesn’t secretly wish he had been a seventies pornographer.  One scene in particular, a continuous take with a long naked monologue followed by violent sex, is particularly disturbing.

This is film as style and attitude.  Leave your narrative instincts at the box office door.  Phoenix is Doc, reprising his anti-hero role in Buffalo Soldiers (2001), and carrying the film on his drooping and increasingly muddled shoulders.  Josh Brolin’s police detective is funny, frightening and an apt foil for the tuned out keyhole peeper (I’m running thin).  A cameo from the seldom seen Dana Carvey is amusing but appears to come from another movie.

Set in 1970, the end of the mythical sixties, post Woodstock and anticipating Altamont,  on the cusp of the me decades to follow, awaiting Nixon’s ramping up of the Viet Nam War and the moral implosion leading to Watergate, Inherent Vice may be a morality tale, though what that moral is I couldn’t say, anymore than Doc can.  True to noir, specifically Chandler, the story is filled with menacing mobsters, oily tycoons, mysterious cults and lost souls.  Doc has a code, though mostly he has a monkey on his back and it is difficult to see how he could possibly survive as a professional investigator (much less finance his drug habit).

Style and attitude are often considered, by over-confident, over-ambitious and under-talented filmmakers, to make up for a lack of narrative coherence.  Noir is ever with us since it’s combination of morality and cynicism has never been more apt.  The production values and budgets may have skyrocketed since the days when the noir came from a lack of adequate lighting, but the dark, cynical soul remains.

Inherent Vice falls somewhere between shaggy dick almost story and 180 minutes of self-indulgence (see Magnolia (1999)).  As with much of Anderson’s output, this film exceeds viewing tolerance levels by about thirty minutes.  On the other hand, it is the virtue of Phoenix’s performance and Pynchon’s dialog that it is actually compellingly watchable, which may sound like damning praise, but there are certainly worse ways of spending three hours (counting the endless pre-film adverts–including that bizarre spot with the animated ducks), such as watching anything by Michael Bay or Russell Crowe in Noah (2014).

But given a choice, I’ll take Altman.