Thursday, 29 November 2007

When the Star Doesn't Like Their Movie

Though I enjoy movies and in the past have read about the making of them and used to be a regular viewer of movie critic programmes, I have never been overly drawn to interviews with movie stars themselves. I would preferably read something from the director about the film than the actors' comments, though in contrast to many movie buffs I see the actors' contributions as being of greater importance to the quality of the film compared to those who tend to put all the blame or praise at the foot of the director. I also think the Director of Photography of many films is another person who needs attention when a movie is good or bad. Anyway, today I am going to talk about comments by movie actors (and actresses, if that word is still permitted) when they downplay or even denigrate a movie they have appeared in.

This is not a common occurrence. Generally any doubts they have, if they have not come out with the director on set, they keep to themselves and smile and promote the movie. However, some strong actors will make comments about poor movies they have been in. Some are very honest and say that they do bad movies for the money. Notable in this category is Richard E. Grant who quite consciously took any movie part (such as in the awful 'Spice World' (1999)) he could get to raise the funds to direct his own movie 'Wah Wah' (2005) the first movie ever to be made in Swaziland, where he grew up. Some actors, notably Colin Farrell in regard to 'Alexander' (2004), just are tired of the whole thing and want to party rather than tramp around the world saying great things about the movie they are in. 'Alexander' is pretty insipid, with one decent battle scene and far too much mysticism. It had the courage to portray the Macedonians as all with Irish accents to fit in with Farell's ,with the interesting consequence of Val Kilmer having to play Phillip, Alexander the Great's father with an Irish accent.

We do tend to have a rather patronising view of how people in the past should be portrayed as speaking. Unless you go with Mel Gibson's approach in 'The Passion of the Christ' (2004) and get everyone speaking ancient Aramaic to be authentic, you have to accept they are going to sound like us. I felt Keira Knightley was unfairly criticised for an upper class English accent in 'King Arthur' (2004) as she was supposed to be playing a Queen and maybe a 5th Century CE queen would not have spoken the way the queen does today, but it would have been the equivalent; she certainly would not have spoken like an urchin.

Sorry, I am getting sidetracked. The two case studies I want to look at are of movies which I like and think are of decent quality so I feel disappointed that the stars in them do not share my positive opinion of them. The first is 'Plunkett and Macleane' (1999) and the co-star of that movie, Robert Carlyle. Carlyle's career has been strong if varied. He is noted for his role as Albie Kinsella in the series 'Cracker' (1994), the peak moment in an excellent series and thuggish Begbie in 'Trainspotting' (1996). He was a reasonable baddie in the Bond movie, 'The World is Not Enough' (1999) and family man-cum-stripper in 'The Full Monty' (1997).  He played a similar character in 'The 51st State' (2001). He is rather typecast as the working class character with various attributes, usually looking to achieve more in his life and, to some degree, he even brought this to his portrayal of Hitler in 'Hitler: The Rise of Evil' (2003).  His physical stature actually matched that of the dictator. I have not seen all of his movies and I imagine in 'Ravenous' (1999), in which he plays a cannibal colonel in the 19th century, he steps outside his usual roles.

I can imagine why Carlyle had problems with 'Plunkett and Macleane' as I read in a magazine interview at the time, though it seems a pity. It was directed by Jake Scott (son of Ridley Scott) and, as in his father's work, there is a visual idiom which is informed more by pop videos than by classic movies. There are anachronistic elements in the movie such as the use of modern pop songs at the banquet.  This was an approach later adopted successfully in 'A Knight's Tale' (2001) and less successfully in 'Marie Antoinette' (2006). However, in other ways 'Plunkett and Macleane' is actually incredibly accurate in historical terms about the 18th century, something that many people overlook. For example, there is the filth, even of the rich people.  This was a time when the toilet facilities at balls were pots behind a screen in the corner.  It is good on the prison system; the fact that if you were in prison and wealthy you could live quite comfortably; that people were hanged at Tyburn (where Marble Arch is now in London) from tripods rather than the later mechanical 19th century gallows you see in almost all movies.  It also accurately shows that the rich could live in squalor during the day and live a vicarious life of parties, gambling, drink and drugs in the way celebrities do today; that one call fall in status easily; that there were puritans alongside the debauched and that corruption was rife; that it was difficult to rise in status but America was a real land of opportunity for those who could get there.

All of these things form a rich background to a romp movie, admittedly, but there is nothing wrong with a movie that has excitement and narrow escapes. The banter between the reckless, middle class Jonny [sic] Lee Miller character, Captain Macleane and working class Plunkett adds an extra and credible dimension to the movie.  Plunkett's anger, disappointment and frustration when he finds Macleane has gambled away what they had gained from being highwaymen, shows Carlyle's depth even when acting in a mainstream. populist movie.

I know Carlyle might not see 'Plunkett and Macleane' as his greatest hour, but in that I think he is wrong and it is certainly far better than 'The 51st State' which is a mess of a movie and lazy or '28 Weeks Later' (2007).  It is particularly better than the twee TV series 'Hamish Macbeth' (1997).  It is certainly at least as decent as 'The World is Not Enough' and, in fact, gave opportunity for a better range from Carlyle, as, in the Bond movie, his character is supposed to be devoid of feeling which Plunkett certainly is not. So Robert, do not disparage 'Plunkett and Macleane' be proud of it and keep working.

The second case study is 'The Truth About Cats and Dogs' (1996). Janeane Garofalo's career has been more focused on working in comedy television series appearing in 'Ellen', 'Seinfeld' and 'The Larry Sanders Show' and, in the 2000s, more in serious series like 'The West Wing' and '24'. However, she has made a number of movies in which she is often a minor character such as 'Reality Bites' (1994), 'Cop Land' (1997), 'Romi and Michelle's High School Reunion' (1997) or 'Dogma' (1999).  She was a great part of the ensemble in 'Mystery Men' (1999).  This is a little gem of a comedy movie about dysfunctional superheros which could be seen as a precursor to the current TV series 'Heroes'. Garolfo played The Bowler who had a bowling ball with the skull of her father in which returned to her hand when she throws it.

Garofalo probably unsettles Hollywood with her liberal political views and her appearance: black hair and being about 5'1" (c. 1.53m) is not what people see as that of a Hollywood movie star. Consequently she has done voicing for movies, notably as The Bearded Clam in 'Freak Show' series and Colette in this year's 'Ratatouille' movie.

Anyway, this brings us to 'The Truth About Cats and Dogs' in which she is the star (as in another, even lower key movie, 'The Matchmaker' (1997) another romantic comedy). It was another updated Hollywood remake of the Cyrano de Bergerac.  The first had been 'Roxanne' (1987) with Steve Martin.  That is a decent movie and retains the scene in which the lead runs through 20 jokes about his nose from the original play. However, 'The Truth About Cats and Dogs' did gender reversal and the two people competing for the same lover are women chasing after a photographer played by British actor Ben Chaplin.

Given Garofalo's feminist credentials, the original project would have probably featured more about the role of women in relationships in contemporary USA.  However, unfortunately, Uma Thurman was brought in as her rival and this meant the movie moved from the independent scene to the Hollywood scene. This is the basis on which Garolfo is annoyed by the movie.  She disliked what she saw as her 'ugly duckling' role and regrets taking part in it as you can read on a number of websites about her career. One bad thing is that Uma Thurman is listed as the star of the movie, when Garolfo is the key focus right throughout it.  She appears, or is at least being heard, in almost every scene. Would you expect to see Vincent Perez listed at the top of the actors in 'Cyrano de Bergerac' (1990) or Rick Rossovich for 'Roxanne' (1987) even though they played the part that is fulfilled by Uma Thurman in 'The Truth About Cats and Dogs'? Maybe, that in itself, is part of the message of the movie about the relative standing of women in contemporary USA.

I accept that Garofalo is upset by the loss of the more feminist aspects of the movie and it would have been fascinating to see the original version make it to screen. However, it does not make the movie a bad one and I feel that by having Garolfo as the heroine it still retains some messages that counter standard Hollywood approaches. In some ways, I accept I am biased, as, in terms of beauty, I feel Garofalo beats Thurman every time. Thurman may be blonde but she is gawky and unusual in appearance, this does not make her ugly but in herself she is quite removed from the typical Hollywood definition of 'beauty'.  Thurmanis far sexier in 'Pulp Fiction' (1994) than her portrayal in 'The Truth About Cats and Dogs' which is rather low key.

Garofalo's role is as a radio vet, Abby, who plays the violin and reads Jean Paul Sartre. Whilst Chaplin's character, Brian, is attracted physically to Thurman's Noelle actually he loves Abby's intelligence and culture and also her personality which is robust and yet caring. In fact, most men who are looking for long-term relationships are seeking a woman who challenges them and this is one thing that I like about 'The Truth About Cats and Dogs'.  For a romantic comedy it actually has its feet on the ground and, setting aside the humour, the relationship that develops between Brian and Abby is credible and has an authentic feel about it. It shows that a woman can be true to her strengths, she does not have to suppress her personality or her interests to find a man to share those with. In addition, it is fine for a strong woman to admit she is not made of iron and can have doubts and worries, like anyone else, without that meaning her giving up her right to be a strong woman.

These strengths of the film stem from the fact it is based on an excellent story which itself had roots in actual people, and, in that Garofalo is an actress with integrity which comes through even when things have been distorted to move nearer to what Hollywood seeks. I would advise teenagers to watch this movie for a better view of relationships than many other featuring submissive women that they will have pushed at them.  On that basis I would also underline '10 Things I Hate About You' (1999) based on the Shakespeare play 'The Taming of the Shrew'. Anyway, to conclude, Janeane, you are a beautiful woman, a good actress and comedian and, like many, you have been jostled by Hollywood but 'The Truth About Cats and Dogs' has not been shaved of all merit and be proud that it was in your career.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Brown Stumbles ... and Falls?

When Gordon Brown agreed with Tony Blair in 1994 that Blair would lead the Labour Party and quite likely become the next prime minister, but that Brown would be his annointed successor, Brown must have felt that he had probably got the best deal that was left open to him. Throughout the Blair regime 1997-2007, Brown as the UK's longest consecutively serving Chancellor of the Exchequer (i.e. Finance Minister) had a major role in the government and at times probably expected Blair to fall opening the way for him. Blair, sustained by his self-centredness and incredible arrogance managed to hold on for 10 years before he finally went and then Brown got his chance. Now, Brown must have anticipated that things would not be plain sailing because the public usually gets tired with politicians after a while, though this is less the case now than it was 30 years ago, with the Conservatives in power for 18 years (11 years of Margaret Thatcher; 7 years of John Major) then 10 more years of Blair, there have only been three prime ministers in 28 years since 1979 compared to seven prime ministers in the 28 years before 1979. So Brown, at worst, would think he had as much chance as Major had after following Thatcher.

This now does not seem to be the case. I think Brown is a better prime minister than Blair ever was, but partly this seems to be his undoing. He is coming undone already. Many of the reasons are cannot be directly blamed on him, such as the loss of identity and bank details of 25 million people claiming child benefit this week. That would have happened if Blair was still in office or there had been a November election and Brown had been replaced by David Cameron. However, this is the luck of the draw and the loss happened on Brown's watch. In terms of the economy, something Brown has been directly responsible for for the past 10 years, stability seems to continue, with all the usual seasonal fluctuations. The remaining economic tool of interest rates seems to have slowed inflation and cooled the ridiculously hot housing market in the way that they are supposed to. Of course Britons have become so hooked on always climbing house prices that these days any slowing of the rise, let alone a fall is seem as some problem in the economy, despite the fact that even average houses are being priced out of the reach of even richer than average people. Someone soon is going to have to face the UK's love of consumption and overheated economy and that is going to be doubly hard given the sustained pressure on oil prices. Given Brown's outlook with that sober, Scottish perspective of his, almost puritan in outlook, it is likely to have to be him rather than anyone else and Cameron will be glad he is not in power as such a readjustment is going to be painful and upset a lot of people's assumptions of what they are entitled to buy. (As an aside interestingly, two months ago all banks reduced people's credit card limits by 10% in an attempt to reduce borrowing. This month, not only did I have that 10% restored, but I had an additional 10% put on top of my original limit. This says something serious about banks' inability to really tackle borrowing when they work in a competitive market).

Brown is being challenged over defence spending. Partly this is a legacy of the Blair years as the UK is still involved in both Afghanistan and Iraq as well as all the other locations where we send troops. Day-to-day costs for the armed forces remain high and mean that expenditure on strategic things is challenged. The trouble is, for a supposedly non-militaristic country, the British absolutely love their armed forces in a way which is probably only rivalled by the USA and France. Even in the USA there are more active protests against the armed forces than there ever are in the UK. So anyone who harps on about 'our brave boys [and of course, increasingly, 'girls' too]' is going to get a sympathetic hearing from the public as the three former defence chiefs now in the House of Lords have received today. Brown made a blunder by combining the Defence Secretary and Scottish Secretary posts in one man. With the advent of the Scottish Parliament the Scottish Secretary's role has shrunk considerably, but in terms of public relations, the British public wants a full-time Defence Secretary charging around in tanks. On organisational grounds it probably made sense [especially as Scots are over-represented in the armed forces], but it is a blunder Blair would not have made.

This brings me to my final main point, which is the fiasco over a November election. David Cameron, Leader of the Opposition [the UK is the only country which has the party which has come second in an election an official post, i.e. Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, which entitles them to a number of parliamentary roles], i.e. head of the Conservative Party. He managed very well to turn speculation about an election this month into a commitment that Brown seems to have backed down from. Blair would have very successfully 'spin doctored' his way out of this situation, but Brown has eschewed this media tampering so beloved by Blair and his cronies and in this case he has consequently allowed Cameron to successfully create a phatom issue. Brown could have gone to the polls, but his integrity and common sense stopped him, yet Cameron has portrayed this as vacillation and weakness. In addition, it started a downward slide that with the mishaps mentioned above has reduced Brown's popularity and has concealed his successful handling of terrorism and of the foot-and-mouth and blue tongue outbreaks. If you compare what happened under Blair when terrorists went on to commit another atrocity two weeks after the first and foot-and-mouth spread right across the country, Brown's government has been far more effective, but with minimum credit (partly because farming communities despise the government due to the changes in the rural economy with an oligarchy of supermarkets in control and the issue of the ban on fox hunting, though it only ever appealed to a few farmers has become a beacon for opposition to Labour; rural areas tend to be Conservative anyway).

Brown does not have to have an election until 2009 and whilst it has always been bad for the Labour party to have an election later rather than sooner, Brown may be able to regain some credit in the intervening months. If he can stop his civil servants blundering (or sabotaging) things then that will help. He needs to tread very carefully on defence issues as they are always a natural part of the Conservatives' policies. His own strength in terms of the economy will take time to come through. Sober, even dour, is not exciting and does not appeal these days. Cameron has quite well managed to dismiss his 'silly Billy' manner and comes over as more dynamic which is why Brown will have to work doubly hard to contest Cameron whenever the Brown government makes an error. With the Liberal Democrats' leadership problems still dragging on and with the two main parties so close together on policy, unless Brown can get his strong policies across (and despite my personal horror at it, the increase of detention without trial from 28 days to 58 days is likely to be one these) it is going to come down to a talent show or a beauty contest between Brown and Cameron, something Cameron would win just because he is newer to the scene, if no more attractive in reality. It does appear though, that despite his efforts Cameron is not attracting as much support as you might expect and maybe he is going to have to keep plugging away for months yet. However, with an unlimited potential for blunders and scandals on Labour's horizon, maybe that is all he has to do, just keep on keeping on.

Men: Obsolete in the UK by 2030

A serious of recent media reports in the UK have been indicating how obsolete men are becoming in this country. The fact that there are more female than male workers in the country has been a fact of life since the 1970s, partly because women are far more likely to fill part-time and temporary jobs and to have more than one job. The 1970s saw the growth of the feminist movement in the Western world, and in the UK it had some benefits for women, with anti-gender discrimination legislation coming in the mid-1970s and added to incrementally over the past three decades. The latter phase under Blair owed more to his very pro-family agenda but did mean some additional benefits for mothers in terms of tax breaks and maternity (and paternity) leave, despite other contrary policies which tried to get even more women to work. Despite over thirty years of such legislation women on average in the UK earn 16% less than a male counterpart in the same role. However, a third of women over 40 are now the main earner in their household (partly this is due to the increase in single parent families as a result of a divorce rate of over 150,000 per year in the UK) and in 25% of all households a woman makes all of the decisions about the main purchases - i.e. house, car, holidays, furniture, electrical goods, etc.

So, given the gains, but the fact that we have not yet attained gender equality, you might ask on what basis I argue men will become obsolete by the time I retire. The key reason stems from education. Girls have been doing better at age 11 since the end of the Second World War, but this has now extended further down the age range and they are streaking ahead of boys from the minute they start school, these days on average at the age of 4. Interestingly, in South Africa the starting age is 7; in Sweden it is 6 and a later start actually benefits boys. The move to 'reception' classes for 3-4 year olds becoming increasingly common actually disadvantages boys even further. Boys and girls learn in different ways. Boys always tend to be more physically restless especially below the age of 11. All primary schools in the UK have a large majority of female teachers and many of them have no male teaching staff at all. This stems from the status of primary school teachers and men considering the profession worrying they are going to be accused of paedophilia. The balance is currently shifting backwards, but certainly in the 1990s and 2000s there has been a real shortage of male school teachers; consequently things such as reading books are seen as exclusively female activities. In addition, female teachers, unsurprisingly, despite all their training, think like women, which means an emphasis on communication, consensus and group activity rather than the activity-driven, often quite individualistic focus of boys' preferred forms of working. I am not saying boys should be taught by men and girls by women, but certainly boys would benefit from a range of staff in their primary schools.

As boys find it difficult to engage at the start of their schooling, they now particularly suffer in the very target-driven approach to schooling with exams at age 7, 11, 14 and so on (the test at 7 has been dropped in Scotland and Wales but not England where 83% of the UK population lives). I would be interested if any other government has issued targets for children under the age of 5, as the UK government has done. Doing poorly in such tests disheartens boys and so distances them from any interest in learning. Both sexes are increasingly attracted by the other, easy ways to success in the UK - crime and celebrity, but these stand out a little less for a girl who is doing well at school than they do for boys, who are likely to have a tendency to petty crime anyway (the two most common youth crimes are vandalism and shoplifting and girls engage in shoplifting as much as boys), especially that which involves violence or the destruction of property. So, from the moment they start school, boys are liable to be lagging behind girls, a position they never recover. The disheartening nature of failing every couple of years and the lack of a clear position in society must be a contributing factor in the high level of suicides among men and boys in the UK.

The National Curriculum was introduced to UK schools in 1992. It was the first time in British history that the government outlined what schools had to teach (bar religious education which was the only subject to have been made compulsory previously, in 1944), what skills they expected pupils to gain and issues they had to cover. This means that any person who is 20 years old or younger will have gone through this system for all of their school life and any person 31 or younger will have at least experienced it during their secondary education. The consequences are already apparent in the gender imbalance in universities. Again, I am not arguing it was wrong for the position of women to improve, but it seems now that they are pushing far ahead and we will soon see a gender imbalance which mirrors (i.e. in reverse) that of the 1950s. There are currently over 330,000 more female students at university than male students. The balance is 56% female to 44% male and the female share is increasing. Some subject areas such as engineering and certain science subjects are holding on to a male majority. However, other traditionally male subject areas such as medicine (to become a doctor) and law now have 6 women students for every 4 men and again this level is increasing. You may say, well, that is only university students, but in contrast to the early 1980s when only 6% of the population went to university the level is now not far off the government target of 50% of the population under 25. Of course, also, people with degrees tend to fill the best jobs. Men are more debt-averse than women, so again the move towards students (or their families) paying up to £3000 (€4290; US$6210) fees has just increased the tendency of men not to go to university and to seek work, adding to the fact that because of their lagging in study right throughout school they lack the grades to compete against women.

So it is clear that in the next decade women will be the majority in terms of graduates entering the labour market. This is why I said it will take 25-30 years for the impact to be felt, because in that time those men appointed in the preceding circumstances will retire and in many cases will be replaced by women. For example, female lawyers are still a minority but the force of numbers will change this in the next decades as it already has in senior positions in the police service. The female dominance at all levels of education will be reinforced. Women have already made great gains in the number of female doctors and this trend will increase or even accelerate as the current batch of students and their successors begin to qualify (the shift to a female majority in universities occurred in 2000, so with 5-year medical courses you will expect to see women from that majority position appearing in hospitals and surgeries now).

One factor that will accentuate the simple numerical pressures is that the skills women have are those now demanded in the workplace. Think how often you see the requirement for good communication and presentation skills, balancing conflicting demands and team working, just the skills that women excel at from the moment they start school. Things like leadership and manual skill (and in the technological age even the ability to fight) that men were seen as good at are no longer wanted. In the global marketplace, languages are also at a premium and this is an area in which women have always been stronger than men.

Socially men have long been redundant. Single-parent families, which generally means the mother and child(ren) is predominant in many areas of British society, no matter whether it is a working class or middle class context. Often these are multi-generational female-only families with grandmother/mother/daughter sharing childminding. Boys in such circumstances seem out of place and have no positive male role model, though their understanding of the female psyche may be strong. In these common family patterns men come, they produce a child, then contribute some money (or not) and they go again. The number of divorces which happen while the children are at primary school is very high and of course this signals to girls that men are not needed and in fact cause upset and argument. Men are not even needed sexually. In common with other European countries, notably Germany, sex toys are now available in high street shops, even department stores are branching out into them. Whilst male 'escorts' lag in number behind the female variety they are on the increase and it is clear that women in the 2010s will not have to bother with the pain of having a man around the house, they can simply hire one when they feel they need one. Of course they can buy sperm if they want to create a child without even having to have sexual intercourse with a man.

Men will clearly not disappear. As on average in the UK 1056 boys are born for every 1000 girls, they will be in the majority numerically. Women are balancing against their longer life expectancy with their increased consumption of alcohol and drugs, so exacerbating this discrepancy. The issue is what will these men do with themselves? They will be semi-skilled manual workers but lacking the physical and mental abilities to even gain the kind of skills that are needed for high paid, responsible jobs. They will have minimal role as fathers and certainly none as bread winners as even those who marry are likely to earn less than their wives and will probably only be kept on until the woman tires of them. Multiple female families with a couple of mothers (not living in a lesbian relationship, simply in an economic one) and their children may be the common pattern of homeowners in 2030. Men will be the cleaners and the shop assistants (they are already losing their status as bus and train drivers and the number of women truckers is rising quickly too). Boys will have little to aspire to except roles like these or the military or a life of unemployment. The UK will never get to the stage where families will want to abort male foetuses, but there is an issue of what to do with all these men with little hope.

One model is the USA. In the 1980s one saw the rise of the male movement trying to capture a role for men in a changing society. It came in step with the closure of much manufacturing, engineering and related employment in the USA (the UK too) and little success in these regions in creating replacement work. Women were the ones needed for the light engineering, service sector and ICT industries which appeared. The men's movement has never really penetrated the UK, possibly because the gender-specific unemployment was lost among the mass unemployment (4 million+) of the 1980s making it less apparent than in the USA. The future for British males is already becoming visible from the USA - prison. The USA currently has more than 1 in every 100 of its population in prison and the large majority are men. The UK is now at the limit of its prison spaces (around 80,000 compared to over 2.5 million in the USA; population 65 million - UK to 256 million USA), but it is clear that with its prison expansion programme these places are going to be filled by men with no other option bar suicide. By 2030 prison will become the main career route for any UK man who cannot stomach taking his own life or taking a McJob.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

The Movie 'Ratatouille' and the American View of France

Well, I have addressed some classic movies and some far less classic. In this posting I am going to have a quick look at a recent release 'Ratatouille' (2007). This is an animated movie aimed at children. It features a rat living in France who develops the tastes of a connoisseur and moves to Paris where he can enjoy the cuisine on offer. Haunted by the ghost of a successful television chef he goes to the chef's restaurant and aids the dead chef's illegitimate son to return the restaurant to its former glory but conjuring simple but popular, delicious dishes. There is of course lots of running around, problems with the rat's relatives turning up, some romance for the human lead in the kitchen and generally a fine all round package.

What my issue is, is not about the whimsy of a connoisseur rat but how France itself is portayed in the movie. In the same way that well into the 1960s even after the clean air acts in US films London was always portrayed as being foggy, so there is a fixed view of France that seems to be even more lingering. It is as if every American director (in this case Brad Bird who directed the excellent animated movie 'The Incredibles' (2004)) is compelled to watch the Gene Kelly movie 'An American in Paris' (1951) to get his/her view of France. One assumes that the France portrayed is France in the 2000s and yet every television featured in the film is black and white. Paris is shown as full of those 19th century apartments with gurgling pipes and crimes passionelle being conducted behind closed doors but so noisily the public can hear; huge dated restaurants of the old style. The clothing seems contemporary and the female chef Colette (voiced by Janeane Garofalo who I always have time for) who rides around on a powerful motorbike seem like nods to the contemporary world. However, for the rest the movie seems like France circa 1964. France does have old world charm in small villages but so does most other countries in Europe; but France is also the country of high tech, DVDs were common there well before the rest of Europe as were smart cards on public transport and the minitel a sophisticated telephone/public information system in every bedroom before anyone had the internet at home. For the Americans, France always seems to be stuck in the Autumn, presumably when they go and visit it. If you have ever played the computer game 'Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars' (1996) you find exactly the same environment in Paris with golden afternoons and brown leaves blowing in the boulevards.

I can accept that 'Ratatouille' is supposed to contain elements of nostalgia in it, but it is rather alarming if this is the USA's view of what contemporary France is like. It would be the equivalent of a French or British film showing Americans clustering around to watch the McCarthy trials or go out to the corner drugstore for a soda and pretend that is the USA today. Either set your movies in the past and make this clear or have them in a correct present otherwise a lot of American children are going to be rather shocked when they travel on their trips to Europe to find countries actually more advanced than their own (and with four seasons), not stuck in some setting their grandparents knew forty to fifty years ago.

What If? Art 6: Books that Existed but have been Lost

This posting is slightly different. All of the books shown did actually exist at one time, it is just that for various reasons they have now been lost to us. In the past ten years a whole slew of lost books has turned up in various places, suich as 'Paris in the Twentieth Century' by Jules Verne (1863) a very accurate prediction of Paris in the 1960s which reappeared in 1997; 'Basil Howe: A Story of Young Love' by G.K. Chesterton (1894) was published in 2001; 'The Rum Diary' by Hunter S. Thompson (1950s) which resurfaced in 1998; 'Summer Crossing' by Truman Capote (1943) republished in 2004, 'The Last Cavalier' Alexandre Dumas's final novel which had been lost then refound and published again in 2005, plus Robert A. Heinlein's 'For Us, the Living' (1939) which was suppressed as it was seen as 'too racy' at the time. This year, 89-year old Dutch author, Hella Haasse found a manuscript of her own lost book 'Sterrenjacht' (Hunt for the Stars) (1950). The next one to be published imminently is 'The Children of Húrin' by J.R.R. Tolkien which is apparently set 650 years before the events featured in 'The Hobbit'. There is a great list of lost books at: Many of them date from Classical times and it is just an issue of things being lost in history or destroyed for example in the burning of the Library at Alexandria. Even material that we know about produced by William Shakespeare is now no longer available, but we know it existed because others refer to it (the same has happened with paintings, some artists include other artists' paintings in the background of their pictures and these are often the only clues, along with things like bills of sale, that we have about these paintings which are now lost). In more modern times, books have tended to be lost because of war or repression or more often because the author themselves or their executors have destroyed incomplete or early work or work that embarrassed them. Capote thought he had done this with his early 'Summer Crossing' but one manuscript escaped destruction.

Thus, the novels and the plays featured here are books which existed at one time, but you certainly can no longer pick them up at your local bookstore. Whenever a lost novel is found there is a great rush to get it published as sales, if only based on curiosity alone, are typically strong. This is a range of some of the interesting lost books. I have worked on the covers over a few weeks and have noticed I have become rather dependent on Victorian paintings for the covers, sort of Pre-Raphelite style in most cases so I hope you forgive my lack of imagination in this respect. I will do them in chronological order.

'Achilles' by Aeschylus

Aeschylus (525-456 BCE) was an Ancient Greek playwright. He is supposed to have written 90 plays in his life of which only 6 survive with another possible one attributed to him. Fragments of his 'Achilles' were found in mummy wrappings a decade ago. His plays were tragedies and very influenced by the Persian invasion of Greece so it is likely that his played about the flawed legendary Greek hero Achilles (played reasonably well in all his arrogance and narcissism by Brad Pitt in 'Troy' (2004)) would have combined both tragedy and some Greek patriotism. Aeschylus did better than some other playwrights of Ancient Greece we have 11/40 of Aristophones's plays, 18/90 of Euripides's, 7/123 of Sophocles's and none of those by Agathon, Cratinus, Diphilus and Theodectes. Given how so many Greek stories have ended up in our modern day culture and fiction let alone being performed themselves, even if 10% of these let alone one in four or more had survived, then we would have some very different material in our culture. An interesting 'what if?'

'Studiosus' by Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder (23-79) was a Roman historian, natural historian and author. We have more of his natural history works than we do his other material. His 'History of the Times' and 'History of the German Wars' may have given us a different picture of Roman civilisation especially penetration into Germany as many now believe that there were Roman settlements farther into Germany than was previously thought. In addition Pliny lived through the end of the Roman Republic into the Imperial period, including the conquest of Britain. The book featured here, 'Studiosus' was his lost study of the art of rhetoric, an important skill in Roman civilisation.

'Love's Labour's Won' by William Shakespeare (1598)

As discussed in a previous posting it has been argued that a number of other writers may have been responsible for William Shakespeare's (1564-1616) work. In addition there are plays that are attributed to William Shakespeare and may or may not have been written by him and quite often were collaborations between him and another writer. Aside from these discussions there is harder evidence that shows a number of his own plays have been lost. 'Love's Labour's Won' written in 1598 was the matching play to 'Love's Labour's Lost' but there is no trace of it today. (In an episode of the British television series 'Doctor Who' the time-travelling characters meet Shakespeare and having saved him for attack by alien witches this missing play is mentioned).

'Les Journées de Florbelle' by the Marquis De Sade (1807)

The Marquis De Sade (1740-1814) was a playwright and author in the years leading up to and including the French Revolution and almost to the end of the reign of Napoleon. He is renowned for his erotic fiction and his name was given to the sexual perversion of 'sadism' in which a person gains sexual gratification from inflicting pain, though the term has now broadened to refer to straight forward brutality. De Sade spent much of his life in prison or insane asylums. He his most famous for 'Justine', 'Juliette' and '120 Days of Sodom'. The Marquis's son had all of his unpublished manuscripts burnt after his father's death including the many volumes of 'Les Journées de Florbelle' featured here. Another eight of De Sade's works have been lost.

'The Poor Man and the Lady' by Thomas Hardy (1867)

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) is an author renowned for his sentimental dramatic stories set in the West of England, possibly his most famous book is 'Tess of the D'Urbevilles' (1891). 'The Poor Man and the Lady' was Hardy's first novel written in 1867, but not finding a publisher for it he destroyed the manuscript. His first published novel was 'Desperate Remedies' (1871) though it was published anonymously. If he had kept hold of 'The Poor Man and the Lady' manuscript it is likely he would have found a publisher for it in the early 1870s. With this cover as with Aeschylus and Pliny the Elder, I have used the wide-ranging Penguin Classics range which covers both works of the Classical World of Ancient Greece and Rome as well as 'classics' from books through the centuries.

'Pilgrim on the Hill' by Philip K. Dick (1956)

Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) has featured quite a bit on this blog so probably needs no introduction. Somewhere in the world probably exists an actual copy of this book with a different cover as there are three of Dick's earliest novels: 'A Time for George Stavros' (1956), 'Nicholas and the Higs' (1958) and this one which have subsequently become lost. Dick features religious elements in some of his novels. In 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' (1968) via a device he and his wife grasp, the hero tunes into a constant television programme of religious leader struggling up a hill who can throw rocks at the viewer. So though I have no idea about the content of the 1956 novel 'Pilgrim on the Hill' one might speculate its plot included some elements of this.

'You and Me and the Continuum' by J.G. Ballard (1957)

This is another lost early novel of a science fiction writer, though J.G. Ballard (born 1930) never actually finished it, it was seen almost completed in 1956. Ballard has given rise to the term 'Ballardian' because of his various dystopian visions such as 'The Drowned World' (1962), 'The Burning World' (1964) and even Shepperton (in Surrey, England where he lives) becoming an overgrown jungle in 'The Unlimited Dream Company' (1979). Attention to him in the mainstream media has been around his novel 'Crash' (1973) and the movie that was made of it in 1996 about people who get sexually aroused by car accidents and his semi-autobiographical novel about his life in China during the Second World War in 'Empire of the Sun' (1984) and its movie of the same name in 1987. Maybe 'You and Me and the Continuum' would have been a more mainstream science fiction novel, maybe it would have been an early engagement with his later dystopian themes of worlds out of control. Ballard is still alive so maybe someone will ask him if he remembers and if they do (or already have done) can someone point me towards his answer.

'Double Exposure' by Sylvia Plath (1964)

Maybe our computer age is ending the 'lost' novel, now that we are no longer dependent on handtyped manuscripts that can be lost by authors (even when this appeared as a conceit in the movie 'Love Actually' (2003) it appeared very dated) or destroyed by their executors. Different versions of novels can be deleted by a touch of a button. However, so many of us create backup files (often our computer will do it without asking, this blog keeps saving as I type so even if I died while writing this my partially saved 'lost' blog posting would remain for discovery) that there may be many copies that would not be deleted. In addition, I have already encountered this, that there are stories I have saved on disk that I cannot now access because the file type has changed and I cannot open them to delete them maybe one day a data archaeologist could get in and access my early work (this happened to the University of Hull's computerisation of the Domesday book carried out in 1986, they thought they were all high-tech at the time, but a decade later no-one could access their files; funnily enough, the original Domesday Book is as easy for a user to read as the day it was written).

So, anyway, this speculation brings me to why my cut-off date for a lost book maybe the 1960s, twenty years before home computers. The manuscript of 'Double Exposure' or 'Double Take' (people are uncertain about the exact title, I picked the former, partly because of the mental illness Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) suffered and a sense of a divided personality and by including the Marilyn Monroe image in the picture it suggests double taking a celebrity) was seen in poet Sylvia Plath's possession around the time of her suicide and it is believed the manuscript was destroyed in 1970. I imagine it being taken up and published posthumously. Monroe had died in 1962.

So all of these books see counter-factuals if just simply in someone holding on to what had been written. At the minimum their survival would have expanded the body of work we discuss about these writers and their books may have fed into our contemporary culture triggering a range of cultural outputs. Of course, given that lost work seems to keep turning up in recent years, it is quite possible we will see some of these on the book shelves in the coming future.

Property in the UK 6a: My Final Chapter?

Well, the challenges of trying to sell a flat (apartment) and buy a house seem to be continuing right down to the wire. This week, over 3 months since I accepted the offer on my flat it was finally sold. If you are ever going to get involved in property in East London you have to realise that things happen differently to anywhere else in the UK that I have experienced (it may be the same in other rough parts of major UK cities like Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Glasgow, etc., but someone will have to let me know, I do not intend to try to buy a house in those places). The key problem is that having made an offer the buyers (and I had two, I switched from the first when he could not get sufficient funds together) push for what used to be termed 'squeeze', i.e. little extra bonuses. The first buyer, despite getting the flat at a very good price (more on that in a minute) insisted that I put in a whole new bathroom before he would buy it. The second buyer, well in fact the man representing the woman who was buying it, right at the last moment insisted that the furniture which was being sold with the flat (and had been listed with it from the start) be removed before he would exchange contracts, and he demanded £545 (€779; US$1100) from me to do it. I got it done for £100. He then claimed there were cockroaches in the flat. Cockroaches are not common in the UK especially in places which have not been deserted for a long time (and the flat had only been empty four weeks). He was permitted to go in and out of the flat by the estate agents. I went to the flat and whilst it was musty there was no sign of cockroaches. I refused his demand for the money and told him to sign or back off. On the day before the contracts were about to be exchanged removal men employed by the estate agents were in the flat taking out the unwanted furniture and miraculously the front door lock got broken. The estate agent's man supposed to organise fixing it went off sick and so it was up to me to get the lock entirely replaced at my expense before the solicitors would exchange contracts, at the cost of another £150, which really I had no choice but to pay or face the sale dragging on for more weeks. I am so glad to be rid of the flat, it turned out to be a burden on me rather than the money spinner people predicted when I moved out and put it up for rent. My message is: do not buy property in Newham.

Now I turn to the estate agents. I think it is time to name names. If you are in East London looking to sell a property do not use David Daniels Professional Property Services. My 2-bedroomed flat was finally sold for £26,000 (€37,180; US$52,520) less than any other 2-bedroomed flat they had for sale and that is despite mine going on the market 2 months before the slow down in house prices we have seen in the past 3 months. I accept that I might not have got something in the high £150,000s but I certainly would have expected a price closer to that. They entirely exploited me because I was calling them from outside London; clearly local influence has a big impact. This was despite the fact that I had earned them hundreds of pounds over the years as the letting agent for my flat on my behalf. Throughout it seems that they were working in the interests of someone else; though I was paying them a decent fee they seemed to not be benefiting me.

They initially encouraged me to take an offer of £115,000 for the flat despite that being £15,000 less than 1-bedroomed flats in the same street. When I refused this they said I was pricing myself out of the market. As it turns out everyone I met in the district, taxi drivers, the locksmith, shopkeepers said I had under-priced it. I was at a disadvantage dealing with them from scores of miles away but there is only so much pressure you can bring on a company. I clearly should have switched estate agent much sooner. Clearly it is not always possible to avoid selling a property at a distance especially when you have to move for work, but I would certainly recommend avoiding it or at least enlist a number of estate agents rather than rely on one even if you have worked with them before or they have been recommended. I might be naive when it comes to property and I might be insufficiently cunning or aggressive to cope with the modern property market, but when I pay people a couple of thousand pounds I expect better service than I received. It is the typical powerlessness, we can do nothing in the face of 'skilled' workers, they set the agenda not us even when they are spotty wide boys just out of their adolescence throwing their weight around.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Denying a Counter-factual: Issues around Second World War invasions of the USA

While seeking out source material for my current lost book cover project I came across the following image of a cover of 'The Man in the High Castle' by Philip K. Dick (1961). To contextualise this, 'Fail Safe' was a novel written novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler published in 1962 and was about an accidental nuclear attack by the USA on the USSR it became a movie in 1964 directed by Sydney Lumet with Peter Fonda and Walther Matthau in it. Similarly 'Seven Days in May' by written by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey in 1962 sees a coup staged by generals in the USA who fake a nuclear crisis so that the President can be sealed in a bunker and they can take control. This novel also became a movie in 1964 directed by John Frankenheimer starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Ava Gardner.

In many ways, Dick's book is different, as you can see from the cover it envisages the USA lost the Second World War and was divided by Nazi Germany and Japan. This is the only map I have seen of the set-up though I think it is a bit wrong as in the novel the Germans stay East of the River Mississippi and so not holding Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana as shown here. If I remember correctly the Japanese have not gone much farther East than Nevada and Idaho; a series of collaborationist American states are mentioned as running the region of the Rockies.

Dick was a prolific author having 44 novels published in his lifetime (1928-82) and numerous short stories; other things were published after his death. I think he is the science fiction author who has had more of his stories turned into movies than any other; 'Blade Runner' (1982), 'Total Recall' (1990), 'Screamers' (1995), 'Minority Report' (2002), 'Imposter' (2002), 'Paycheck' (2003), 'A Scanner Darkly' (2006), 'Next' (2007) and 'Confessions d'un Barjo' are all adapted from his stories. Ironically I had always assumed 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' (2004) was based on a Dick novel; it certainly has many elements he enjoyed playing with.

Dick's novels, whilst predominantly science fiction, are often influenced by drug issues and mysticism. This applies to 'The Man in the High Castle' which is probably the novel which saw the best crossover into mainstream popular fiction before the 1980s. Towards the end of the book, through the use of the I-Ching method of predicting the future, many of the characters find they are in the 'wrong' world and that our world where Germany and Japan were defeated is the 'real' one. This undermines much of the basis of counter-factual fiction, but plays to Dick's interest in our perceptions and how these can be distorted, a theme which you will see even in the movie adaptations, such as Rick Deckard in 'Blade Runner' uncertain whether he is an android or now, the protagonists in 'Total Recall', 'Minority Report' and 'Paycheck' are all uncertain too what is the 'truth' and what has simply been fed to them. 'A Scanner Darkly' is about seeing the world through a drug haze.

I would argue, however, that Dick's denial of the possibility that a US defeat in the Second World War (which is unsurprising, if he had written anything different in 1961 he would never had had it published) fits an ongoing denial in the USA that they ever faced the danger of this or that they are not somehow the blessed nation. My political concerns about the USA creep in here, I fully acknowledge that, but I also think it is unhealthy for any country to think it is exempt from the dangers and possibilities of (violent) change that occur. This has often been a problem for the UK as well. The US inability to accept that it can be threatened and even be defeated is what has made it so difficult to cope with the Vietnam War, the 11th September attacks and the disintegration of the position in Iraq.

I found parallels with this in a computer game released by Talonsoft in the late 1990s. Their games in the so-called 'Campaign' series were produced from 1996 onwards. They seem pretty simple nowadays, being platoon-level turn based games with a landscape set out in hexagons like the board wargames that were popular in the 1980s. However, there were little animations and sound effects of the soldiers, tanks, etc. moving around. In addition there was immense historical detail of the battles they featured. They started with 'Eastern Front' which as it suggests featured battles of the Soviet campaign not only against the Germans but also the Finns, 1940-45. This was followed by 'West Front' which included North Africa as well as France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany and other locations of the Western Front of the Second World War. The final one was 'Rising Sun' which had a series of battles in the Pacific region. The games were produced as a boxed set with the three core games, plus all the upgrades as 'The World At War' in 2001. The company went on to do battles of the Arab-Israeli conflict too and it had already covered battles from the American Civil War.

Though the games seem simplistic now, the attention to detail and the ability to refight classic battles meant they were long a draw for wargamers. Naturally I enjoyed reversing history and was able to defeat the German attempt to take Crete in 1941 and stop the Panzers at the River Marne in 1940. As yet I have never been able to hold the bridge at Arnhem in 1944 for the Allies, but I kept a far larger bridgehead. In addition, upgrades of the games contained specifically counter-factual scenarios, such a series of battles around the German invasion of Britain in 1941. These allowed you to play either the German attackers or the British defenders not only in the South of England but even up to attacks on Manchester in the North-West.

I was interested to try out the Japanese invasion of the USA in 1942. Playing as Japanese characters especially in campaign mode which allows you to fight a sequence of connected battles was always difficult. Despite Talonsoft's efforts in terms of historical accuracy, whenever you played as a Japanese commander, even if you were not actually defeated, but failed to achieve all of the objectives you had been set, your character committed seppuku, even if only at the rank of major. Anyone who has looked at the Japanese campaign in China and the Pacific knows this did not happen. The Japanese were not always successful and their commanders only committed suicide when things seemed hopeless and they were holed up in some redoubt, not when they simply faced set-backs particularly on the advance. If the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy had adopted the ethics of Talonsoft, by 1942 there would have been no senior officers left.

What was more disconcerting is when you turn to the counter-factual invasions of the USA. In the 'West Front' game, you can play as the Germans and defeat the British so conquering the UK; equally you can play as the British fighting off the attacks. However, in the 'Rising Sun' game, you cannot play as the Japanese in attacking the USA, you can only play as the US defenders. In addition, in contrast to all of the other battles you can fight (which often turn quickly counter-factual even if starting off on a historical basis, otherwise what is the point of playing the computer wargame, you might as well simply watch a documentary), there is a statement saying how this never would have happened, that the Japanese never would have been able to invade the USA and so on. Is the USA that insecure about its place in the world that it cannot even let people play at invading it? Why is it alright for Talonsoft to let the UK fall to Nazism (and for Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad all to be overrun by German troops) but for the West coast of the USA for this not even to have been a possibility?

It is clear, as we have seen from looking at counter-factual books about the Second World War and even about the American Civil War there is still a lot of political currency in the USA around 'what if?' and that many Americans are unwilling to even countenance speculation over 'wrong' history whether in print or in a computer game. In my view this counts as a form of censorship as without speculation how can we truly test our society and the options it has faced and faces still. Without such testing it is all too easy to fall into seeing thing as simply 'inevitable' and 'right'.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Why 'The Siege' is Not a 'Daft Thriller'

I seem to be in a mood for writing about movies at the moment. Inspired by CP's comments on the 'what if?'s around Shakespeare I am currently working on a big posting about covers of lost books, so you will have to be patient for that, but in the meantime I will continue throwing out tablets of lead about movies. This one is a very much eye-to-blog one. Sometimes I ponder over an issue for weeks, sometimes they are even ideas I have had floating around for years, but in this case it was inspired by something I read just this morning in the UK newspaper, 'The Guardian'. I only get time to read one newspaper per week and the Saturday edition of this one is the one I choose. It has a strong section about entertainment media and though I now only watch 1-2 television programmes a week (a sharp contrast to just 3-4 years ago) I like to keep abreast of what is on, plus all the stuff about computer games and movies (which I generally rent on DVD, again in contrast to the early to mid-2000s when I went to the cinema 3-4 times per month). Makes me sound rather reclusive these days, but I suppose commuting 400 miles per week rather than the 50 miles per week I used to do has a large part in that.

Anyway, I generally agree with 'The Guardian' reviews of movies being shown on television. There is a little bit of schizophrenia obvious, because the person who writes the 'Film Choice' section for the television guide often disagrees with the person who writes the little reviews in the programme listings, it is clear their tastes are very different and I tend to agree more with the former than the latter. The listings reviewer, probably because of having less space, falls very much into pat assumptions, they are the kind of person that describes 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' as 'thriller from anti-Semitic author, John Buchan' a line that I have challenged in an earlier posting. Anyway today their comment on 'The Siege' (1999), which is showing in the coming week on British television as a 'daft thriller' is a terrible blunder. In this posting I will say why and if you have not seen it why you should watch it.

The film is about a terrorist attack in New York investigated by FBI officers Anthony Hubbard played by Denzel Washington and Frank Haddad played by Tony Shaloub, who importantly is an Arab-American. It soon becomes apparent that the attack has been caused by muslim militants who go on to threaten other attacks and the thriller element is how the FBI track down the terrorists. However, what gives the film more depth than the usual action thriller is what begins to happen in New York. Regulations become increasingly strict and Arab-Americans in the city are interned, including Haddad's son (this is reminiscent of the USA's interning of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War) and ultimately martial law is imposed on the city under the control of Major-General Devereaux played by Bruce Willis. Hubbard has to resolve the situation without descending into barbaric approaches to respond to barbarism, whereas Deveraux begins personally torturing suspects. In addition there is the interference of the CIA in the form of Elise Kraft played by Annette Bening and it becomes clear that the unit attacking New York was trained by the CIA and feeling betrayed has come to get some recompense for how they have been used.

I have probably given away too much of the plot, but I feel that is important in terms of discussing the film and why it is not 'daft'. The terrorist action does not approach the scale of the 11th September 2001 attacks on New York but in 1999 no-one who predicted such vast terrorist attacks would have been believed in the USA which at the time, despite the earlier bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York, still felt itself invulnerable to foreign terrorism (as opposed to domestic terrorism as in the Oklahoma bombing). The film was mainstream, I saw it in 1999 in Leicester Square, the premier location for cinemas in the UK. This partly stemmed from having four big names in the film. However, by being mainstream it was able to transmit and discuss important questions to the viewing public, especially in the USA, (and people who would not pay to see a Michael Moore movie or DVD) about compromising civil liberties when one is seeking to control terrorism and how the involvement of the military can easily escalate. If we look at the USA's approach to 'homeland security' and its use of torture at Abu Gharib prison in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay, we can see that predictions in 'The Siege' were not out of step with what happened. In addition, an important element, is that the USA has to realise that for decades it has been arming and training people across the world to fight in its interest, and has often lied to them and actually exploited situations for its rather than their benefit and a time has come when it has to face up to such actions. The reason why the Mujahadeen was able to seize power in Afghanistan was because they had been trained and equipped by the USA. Insurgents in Iraq are often using weapons sold to Saddam Hussein's regime in the 1980s in order to fight Iran.

'The Siege' was not a box office success, probably because it challenged rather than comforted the US audience. If there had been a delay of 3 years in its production I doubt it would have ever been released. It was one of the most rented DVDs following the 11th September 2001 attacks and yet, again, I am sure that many renters were suprised that it did not echo the very simplistic, jingoistic attitudes coming out of the USA at the time. 'The Siege' is not a great movie, but it should not be simply written off as a 'daft thriller', it is entertaining, has genuine tension and more than that, more than the large bulk of contemporary movies, actually connects into current developments in the USA and the wider world in an accessible way.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Why 'From Russia With Love' is the Best James Bond Film

I am in a mood for talking movies and decided to put in my vote for the best James Bond movie. In my opinion it is 'From Russia With Love' released in 1963 (and in 1964 in the USA). It was the second Sean Connery James Bond movie to be released with a budget of US$ 2 million, double that of its predecessor 'Dr. No' (1962). It tends to receive much less attention than the one which followed it, 'Goldfinger' (1964) which established the pattern for the James Bond movies made up to the late 1980s.

Why I like 'From Russia With Love' is probably because it is not typical of the series. It has no big base with a huge battle at the end and the technology is kept to a minimum (a talcum powder can that releases tear gas, a suitcase with a knife that springs from it, a large camera with a tape recorder in it; the pager and carphone were actually already available at the time) and in fact the opposition have the best bit of kit, a watch with a garotte wire in it. The movie develops the sinister organisation, SPECTRE, which was added in contrast to the Ian Fleming books which featured SMERSH which had been an actual wartime Soviet unit to eliminate oppoising spies. The world had just experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and was at the height of the Cold War, but Richard Maibaum's screenplay suggests a more complex world than the simple bipolar world of the USSR against the USA and the Soviets are exploited as much as the British are in the film. Even today, the extra twist that even Bond does not realise until the closing stages of the movie, adds something that some makers of contemporary spy movies could learn from. It increases the interest for the audience without losing them in complexity.

The leading female character, Corporal Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi, though dubbed as were many foreign actors in Bond movies) is a cypher clerk for the Soviet consulate in Istanbul and whilst attractive is a little naive and is exploited by Colonel Rosa Klebb (acted by Lotte Lenya - there are few true female villains [as opposed to uncertain female characters who change sides] in Bond films until you get to Fatima Blush in 'Never Say Never Again' - 1983; Mayday in 'A View To a Kill' - 1985, even she turns good at the end; Xenia Onatopp in 'Goldeneye' - 1995 and Elektra King in 'The World is Not Enough' - 1999) SMERSH/KGB operative who has gone over to SPECTRE. It is the ensemble cast which adds to the movie. Klebb might be the evil plotter and dangerous, but she is not infallible nor invincible.

Similarly, Kronsteen (played suitably by Czech actor Vladek Sheybal), the chess master who plots the whole conspiracy which is mainly aiming to kill Bond and get the Lektor code machine for SPECTRE is killed due to the failure of the plan in a very chilling way. The third villian, Donald 'Red' Grant (played by Robert Shaw) is portrayed as a psychopath, another ruthless killer, but again one who is flawed, because of his greed for money. The interplay between Grant and Bond around who is in control and also about class and in effect snobbery, is interesting. The battle between Grant and Bond on the train might be a foregone conclusion but certainly does not appear that way. Thus, unlike many of the Bond villains to follow, this trio may be devious and evil, but are ultimately still human and so in their reflection Bond is human too, he may be cleverer and stronger than us, but he is still one of us, so we can more easily dream of being like him.

The two sides of the same coin is also illustrated very well when Grant is shadowing Bond on the platform of the Yugoslav station, their hair colours, Grant blond, Bond dark contrast, but each seems to be the reflection of the other in this battle of spies. This leads to a more interesting dichotomy and one that is returned to in the Pierce Brosnan era when the morality has again been brought back into question.

Another element that makes the movie appealing is that it does not stretch across the globe. The action takes place between Istanbul and Venice. This is naturally a region which harks back to the thrillers of the pre-First World War and inter-war period as much as to the Cold War. Turkey was the West's ally in the Near East; Bulgaria (Bulgars appear in the Istanbul scenes) was the USSR's ally there; Yugoslavia through which Bond travels was Communist but not beholden to the Soviets and then Italy, is the refuge, a NATO member. So it is an area in the front line of the Cold War and one with a long history of intrigue and adventure, revived for the 1960s in this film. In this, the character of Kerim Bey (played ably by Pedro Armendariz who unfortunately was ill during shooting and committed suicide soon after the movie was released) adds to the flavour and the ensemble nature of the movie. Whilst he is a virile agent, he is also very loyal to family and friends and the audience mourn his death. This adds a personal element to Bond's actions. In fact revenge is a theme which reoccurs, such as Bond's assistance in Bey killing the Bulgarian agent and that SPECTRE wants revenge for Bond's killing of Dr. No.

Bey's role also aids in making it clear to us when watching the film, that Bond is operating in this man's environment, rather than being super-efficient in every context in which he finds himself. (Probably the only other time Bond has such a lesser standing is when in Harlem with the black Felix Leiter in 'Live and Let Die'). Again, this shows Bond as being more human, though very resourceful. Overall 'From Russia With Love' owes more to thrillers of the decades that preceded it and to other spy stories than to the larger-than-life, fantastical monster than the Bond films were to become from 'Goldfinger' onwards before touching base again with 'The Living Daylights' (1987). The film has an engaging plot, a range of interesting characters and, importantly, is of its time. To viewers in 2007 the Balkans of the 1960s draws us in because it is different both in time and place; being dated is part of the movie's charm. The use of locations, light and shadow all add the cinemagraphic appeal of the movie too. Thus, 'From Russia With Love' even 44 years on receives my vote for being the best James Bond movie.

P.P. 07/10/2012
With all the brouhaha around the 50 year anniversary of the release of the movie 'Dr. No', I was interested to read Peter Bradshaw putting forward 'From Russia With Love' as his favourite James Bond movie for much the same reasons as myself:

What is Wrong about the Movie 'In and Out'

This is going to appear an incredibly petty rant about a movie which came out a decade ago, but it is one of those niggly irritations that this blog was set up to throw out into cyberspace. I will include the usual points that I am not gay, so probably in no position to comment on a 'gay' movie (well, in theory, defining it as that is one of my problems with the movie), though I count among my friends three male gay couples and among colleagues two lesbians, so it is not an environment totally alien to me. In addition, when I also make the point as when anyone says that someone from the 21st century USA cannot write about life in say 17th century BCE Egypt or 18th century India or when/where/whatever, that in fact everyone has the right to comment on any time period or any culture. You may dispute that what they say is accurate or worthwhile, but you have no right to stop them making those comments if they so choose.

So, with all of that out of the way, we turn to today's topic. In 1997 the movie 'In and Out' directed by Frank Oz was released. It features a school teacher played by Kevin Kline who is about to get married to another teacher played by Joan Cusack. A former student of Kline's character is receiving an award on television and names Kline's character as being a gay inspiration for him. This in part mimics the acceptance speech by Tom Hanks in 1994 when he referred to a classmate and a school coach as gay. In 'In and Out' there is supposedly comedy in the fact that Kline's character is put under siege by family, friends and the media questioning his sexuality. This is obviously a big thing in small town America, especially for a teacher in a country where many areas condemn homosexuality as sinful. By the end of the movie Kline's character decides that he is in fact gay the way his former student has said. Now, this hardly seems a strong basis for humour, but that is not my gripe with the film.

What angers me so much about this movie is how Kline's character comes to see that he is gay. It has nothing to do with any attraction for men or for the male body. In fact, it is apparent that he is attracted to a woman, his fiancee. The only basis for him being gay is that he likes to listen to musicals and the movies of Barbara Streisand. Now, I know that liking both of these things is often something that gay men enjoy, but to say that doing so automatically makes you gay is only the kind of assumption that the distorted mentality of backwater America could make. Kline's character has no interest in oiled male bodies or wearing leather chaps and yet we also 'know' that these are things gay men love. A gay journalist played by Tom Selleck in the movie (who ironically shaved off his moustache which many commentators felt made him 'look gay' for the part) kisses Kline in the movie, a scene which was controversial, but in fact indicates that actually Kline's character has minimal physical interest in men. So, by the end of the movie, Kline's character, has apparently discovered his true gay sexuality, whereas in fact, all that he has really found out is that he likes movies and music that many gay (and many straight) people like and that maybe his fiancee is more his friend than his lover. This does not make him gay.

This brings me to the key problem with the movie and with the USA's views of being gay. Being gay has nothing to do with what music you listen to, what clothes you wear, what films you watch, even how you cut your hair or what food you eat. Being gay, if you were unaware of the fact, is about being sexually attracted to people of the same sex as you (and to a far greater extent than to people of the opposite sex; being bisexual seems to be beyond the scope of Hollywood films). So all that Kline's character does in the film is come 'out' to his tastes in popular culture, not his sexuality. All of us are on a continuum in terms of our sexuality, some people are 95%:5% straight or gay, many people are 70%:30% in their attraction for women or men but never behave in homosexual way, whereas others at that level are bisexual. People may be gay or straight on different days of the week or at different times of their life, some people never alter, some people change their sexual orientation a great deal. However, the definition of being gay, comes from who you are sexually aroused by, nothing else. So, for a movie to pretend that sexual orientation begins and ends with what movies you watch or what music you listen to, distorts the average person's view of such things as badly as any bigoted fundamentalist and this is why this rather unassuming movie angers me so much.

P.P. 12/03/2010: This distortion in US productions that feels that being gay is simply about effeminate clothing choices seems to persist.  Living in a hotel I do a lot of channel surfing to pass the time and so encountered the US television series 'Glee'.  The series is about a musical performance group at an American high school.  As with the series 'Fame' in the 1980s, it has had success with music from the programme entering the charts.  The episode I watched was apparently a renowned one.  I must say it did make me laugh but I could not tolerate too much of it.  The programme interestingly combines 'issues' such as teenage pregnancy and coming out as gay with regular jolly, upbeat musical interludes.  Anyway, in this episode a young gay character is both in the eponymous glee club and becomes a kicker on the American football team.  This school's football team is useless and to raise their cameraderie the character has them learn a dance routine to Beyonce's 'Single Ladies' (in my view one of her poorest, the lyric 'if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it' is particuarly poor, objectifying women to an 'it' or suggesting that men who want to get married to a woman should have her labia pierced at their expense!).  The team perform this routine during a break in the match and so disconcert their opponents that they win.  The gay character uses it in his run-up to the winning kick.

Anyway, after the match when his father is so proud that he has won the match, the character comes out as gay.  His father's response is that he had known this from the age of eight when his son asked for 'a pair of sensible heels' for a birthday present.  Yet again, the assumption that tranvestitism = gay persists.  Most gay men are not transvestites, some are uber-masculine in clothing and behaviour; most transvestites are in fact straight.  This is an all too convenient coding for US media to use even a generation after Harvey Milk's assasination.  For anyone who does not realise, being gay means loving men and wanting sexual interaction with them, it does not mean liking feminine clothing, movies or songs.  I would insist that any writer/director/producer going to work on a series, especially for/about young people should watch 'My So-Called Life' (1994-5).  Though this US series which launched Clare Danes's career, had some magic realism elements (give your new shoes to angels, people) it portrayed 'issues' far more realistically than you see elsewhere.  I am not saying 'Glee' should be heavy, I am just saying it should avoid repeating misleading portrayals.  Of course, the UK series 'Skins' (2007- now) would give an even better view of how to show young people on television, very far away from 'Glee'.

What Annoys Me About ... Drivers

As I have commented before I drive around 400 miles (640 Km) per week. Last weekend I covered 680 miles (1088 Km), so I experience a lot of traffic. I have driven in the UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Greece so have quite a good deal of knowledge of driving conditions and behaviour in my part of the World. I have heard that in some countries driving is worse than in the UK, and Italy and Malta in particular have been pointed out to me as examples, but I have no experience of driving in those two countries so am in no position to comment. However, I would still imagine that the UK is near the bottom of the table for bad driving.

One reason why drivers in the UK are so bad is because they carry the social consciousness of British society on to the road. Those with big, expensive cars, especially SUVs, expect others to move out of their way and that they are exempt from the regulations, especially in terms of speed limits and parking restrictions. However, at all levels in the UK people feel that they have the right to bully people in a smaller or older or cheaper car with no regard for what the rules of the road are. Every British driver (and this includes many women as well as men) sees driving as somehow a test of their virility (or whatever the female equivalent is) and to be challenged on the road and lose is somehow a serious slight to their personality. This is no basis on which to drive, it is not a gladiatorial competition, it is about getting from A to B as safely as possible, but it seems very few UK drivers recognise that. For them it is about showing off their wealth and status and getting around as fast as they can.

I have already touched on a couple of types of behaviour by UK drivers that I will not revisit here, but will mention again briefly at the beginning for completeness. The first is complaining about speed cameras. So many people say they are simply fund-raising devices and extreme groups even vandalise them. Much print and many hours of radio talk is spent complaining about speed cameras. Of course if you never break the speed limit you will never be fined as a result of a speed camera, but to many UK drivers this insults their freedom to drive as fast as they like (to them it is equivalent to saying to an American that he does not have the right to have bullets for his gun because they may kill people). These people want to the right to drive dangerously and whine incessantly because they are penalised when they do.

Overlapping with the speed camera opponents are those people still using mobile phones in their cars. Hands-free kits have been available for years now and can be bought in any service station. Despite the increased fines and the greater penalties for anyone holding a mobile phone while driving, every day I see people continuing to do it. Their silly phonecall is deemed more important than the lives of the people around them. As with speeding they have the ultimate arrogance that a) they are very skilled drivers b) that laws do not apply to them c) that their petty concerns are greater than the welfare of hundreds of other people. Even skilled police drivers cannot hold mobile phones and drive well; it is not simply the obstacle to gripping the steering wheel but also the mental distraction. You see people wobbling all over the road, braking suddenly and generally causing disruption to the flow of traffic.

Now, moving on to new areas of terrible driving. Different things bubble up through the year, but one persistent one I have faced over the past few weeks is 'tailgating'. If you are not familiar with what this involves, basically it is driving so close to the vehicle in front of you that if it stops suddenly you will be unable not to crash into it. The stopping distance for a car travelling at 30 mph (48kph) in dry weather is the length of 6 average cars (75 ft or 23m) at 70 mph (112kph) - the highest speed you are legally allowed to travel on UK roads, is 24 car lengths (315 ft or 96m). These distances double in wet weather. Now, constantly I have cars behind me at less than 3 ft (i.e. 1m), which means even driving in a residential road where the speed limit is 30mph, if I stop when a child or an old person or a cat runs out, they will definitely crash into me and shunt me forwards quite a distance. You can imagine how hazardous it is on motorways. This is the reason that every day I see cars that have 'shunted', i.e. one has smashed into the rear of another. On a 30 mile (48 Km) journey each morning I typically see three of these accidents. Now, I accept that not all of these kill people, but they wreck cars and contribute to the slowness of traffic.

There are a couple of variations on tailgating. One is the behaviour of lorries (trucks) on motorways (freeways or highways). In the UK their speed is limited to 60 mph (96kph). If you are in front of a lorry and your speed falls to 59mph they will be less than 3 feet behind you, flashing their lights and hooting you to get out of their way, even when you have nowhere to go as there are vehicles blocking the way in front of you. They make no consideration for the fact that you may have moved into the inside lane because you want to turn off, they expect you to charge up to the junction. Having a 30-tonne plus lorry bearing down on you is hardly likely to lead to confident driving. The other thing is the racing between lorries. If one finds that because he is unloaded he can get 1-2mph faster than the one in front he pulls into the middle lane and slowly edges past that other lorry. It is an agonisingly slow race. Of course the lorry on the inside lane never yields any space and sometimes the overtaking lorry has to drop back. All of this is going on for some foolish pride of lorry drivers, but it causes chaos for other road users. It drops the speed of the middle lane suddenly from 70mph to 60mph when the lorry moves out and these large vehicles sweeping constantly back and forth between two lanes sends turbulence and disruption to the other road users that the lorry drivers seem simply to despise. Coach drivers who can go up to 70mph (and usually go much faster despite their passengers) are even worse.

Another variation on tailgating goes back to the social status issue. Many drivers seem to feel that small cars should not be on the road (lorry drivers seem to have the same view of all car drivers). They hoot and flash at them, trying to get them to pull off the road, even when there are other clear lanes to pass on. If you yield the car zooms past and you catch up with it at the next junction anyway. Presumably it is offensive to them to see a small car in front of them and they wish they had some special route just for them (I believe this is one reason why the Conservative Party in the UK want the top speed limit increased to 80mph. Even the Citroen 2CV with an engine capacity of 602cc can make 70mph but most cars under 1 litre [i.e. 1000cc or more usually 998cc] capacity find it difficult to reach 80mph meaning that they would be reconciled to being terrorised by the lorries in the slow and middle lanes). There are drivers who take this further and I have encountered a couple. One will move around back and forth across the road to block your progress and go in front of you and brake suddenly. Another will simply follow you, sitting tight behind you no matter where you go, even if you pull over or speed up or slow down, as if you are in some trashy horror movie. Why these people want to do this I have no idea, clearly they have nothing better to do with their lives.

Other behaviour that is both dangerous and annoying on the road, are people who change lanes, go round roundabouts, turn into side roads, etc. all without signalling. Every car now has clear, easily operated indicators, but some people seem to have an inability to use them. Again they slow up the traffic and increase the danger to others for the sake of them moving their hand a few centimetres. Why people like moving back and forth across all lanes of the motorway I do not know. Then they see their junction and move right from the fast lane to the exit slip road without signalling at all. Again, clearly they simply think the road is just for them.

A similar problem is with people 'undertaking'. By this I am referring not to funeral directors (they at least have the grace to drive slowly) but to people who pass your car on the inside and then pop up in front of you. Like those who wander across all the lanes, they are seeking the quickest route anywhere. By definition they are speeding. The main hazard is that they come back into a middle lane at the same time as someone is coming across from the fast lane and so crash three cars at once. If they have the power and the speed, why can they not simply expend the effort to overtake properly, no-one has any gripe with that. A variation on this comes at junctions when they creep up, say the lane to go left or straight on then jump out right in front of you as you try to turn right. Clearly even a few seconds lost on their journey is more of a concern than their or anyone else's life. The same impatience happens when two roads are merging. In the UK in such situations cars are supposed to merge with one from the main road followed by one from the joining road then one from the main road and so on. However, of course, rather than waiting their turn people push as far forward as they can and shove in as many of them as they can. Again such behaviour not only is hazardous but also actually slows up the whole flow of traffic for everyone, the people carrying out the action too. I must say I have experienced this in Germany as well as the UK, though less often. Another variation is people doing this creeping up when you are queuing to join a ferry or go over a toll bridge or something similar. Why do they think they are exempt from queuing when everyone else has to do it?

In contrast to many of the problems above that stem from arrogance and even self-righteousness, there is one form of bad driving which comes from hesitancy. Maybe this if forgivable given all the overly-assertive dangerous drivers around, but it does add to the difficulties of driving around safely. This is the issue of people who 'hover'. This is notable on motorways where people sit just behind you in the faster lane to you which is a difficult location as it is often in a 'blind spot' for car mirrors. The front of their car is just level with the rear of yours so you cannot move across into their lane and yet if you slow down to get in behind them, they slow too. You end up paying more attention to where they are for fear of them knocking against you, than the rest of the users on the road. Either they should fall back to give you enough space to get in or accelerate and get past you. The same happens with feeder roads, very common on both motorways and dual carriageways. I pass many of these on a daily basis and I know it is often difficult to join the main road from them, so I slow up in advance of the junction and signal for the people to come on, but do they? No. They move forward a little but do not go, then they might go and of course by then I am closer to them and have to slow more, endangering myself from whoever is tailgating me. It also happens in reverse when you are joining from a feeder. Lorries will simply not let you in and you have to hang at the entrance until they all pass, but some cars again will not accelerate past you nor slow enough to let you in and you get pushed to the end of the slip road in a very dangerous situation. Of course I simply put it down to incompetence and a lack of understanding of how the British road system works, but maybe it is malice and they just enjoy toying with you.

I am sure there are probably a hundred more things I witness in terms of bad behaviour on the roads, but these are the most common and probably provoke the most accidents. Other ones that come to mind is people driving around with full beam headlights constantly at night time seemingly unaware that they are dazzling everyone around them, they do this even on well lit and busy roads. People who drive the wrong way into service stations and then expect you to get out of the way when you have come in the correct way and have queued patiently to use a pump. Now that people drive big SUVs they seem to think that the rule that any vehicle pulling a caravan travels no faster than 50mph (80kph) has been scrapped and they charge along at 70mph+ with the caravan flapping side-to-side hazardously. People who do not understand that when approaching a junction what was previously the fast lane, say on a dual carriageway, is now the lane to turn right, so you can go into it and slow down and should not be forced to travel at 70mph right up to the junction just because they think it is still the fast lane.

Generally the quality of driving in the UK is appalling. This stems primarily from arrogance. Most drivers travel around in a bubble and think they are free to drive how they wish with absolutely no interest on anyone else they are sharing the road with, and often with an intention to somehow humiliate many of the people around them. Over 3,500 people are killed each year on Britain's roads; over 290,000 people are severely injured. Of these incidents only around 5% are caused by drunk drivers, which means that 95% of the accidents are committed by someone who is sober but driving in the idiotic ways I see on a daily basis. As the UK's roads become ever busier we need people to wake up and realise when they get in their car they are not starting a computer game or going into battle, they are simply driving and not alone, but with thousands of people around them. The arrogance needs to decrease sharply and a recognition that you are moving with a dangerous weapon in a confined and ever shifting space, needs to come to the fore.