Sunday, 30 December 2007

What Is Wrong With 'The Golden Compass'?

As well as watching DVDs: 'Buongiorno, notte' (2003) and 'Zwartboek' (2007), I actually strayed out to the cinema to see 'The Golden Compass' (2007) which is based on 'The Northern Lights' by Philip Pullman (1995) the first in his His Dark Materials trilogy. I also saw Mark Kermode comment on it in his round-up of movies of 2007 and give it a rather lacklustre review. He prefers 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy (2001-2003) for their darkness and 'The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' (2005) for being more warm-hearted. In fact I think that the Lord of the Rings movies have a similar chumminess about them, the hobbits in particular are there to stand in for the perspective of children and you know they are going to win through despite the odds. Conversely, the first Narnia film has real moments of nastiness such as when the faun is frozen and also when the boy is told that he has betrayed his friends for sweets (something particularly cutting at the time the film is set, the middle of the Second World War). Kermode feels that 'The Golden Compass' lacks the positive elements of these other fantasy films, over-simplifying the novel. This can be said for all of these films, plus the Harry Potter series too. Basically you can make a decent movie out of a novella or a short story. Much of the Philip K. Dick stories turned into movies are not his full length work. In contrast Pullman's work like that of Tolkien and Rowling runs to hundreds of pages; Lewis's work is easier to adapt as his books are the length of the old-fashioned length novel (i.e. say 150 pages) not the doorstops of today. Whole sections of the Lord of the Rings novels are left out from the movies and in the Harry Potter movies there is similar cutting and simplification. That is why movies are adaptations. To come close to a novel you need to do a series.

'The Golden Compass' does make one mistake for younger viewers especially in our illiterate age in that there are a number of instances of foreign languages being used which need sub-titles which it was clear many younger members of the audience around me needed to have read out to them. In the UK the film is rated 'PG' - Parental Guidance which means generally even pre-school children can get in if with a parent; typically children attend movies that are the next rating up from their age, so 12 year olds go to '15' movies and 15-year olds to '18' movies and so on, something few people seem to take into considerationg when making a movie. Sensibly in 'Babe' (1995) the mice read out all the text on screen for the pre-literate members of the audience but I have not seen a similar approach used in other movies.

'The Golden Compass' has done poorly in the USA and there are possibly two reasons for this. I disagree with Kermode that it is because it lacks the passion of these other fantasy blockbusters.I think it is because the agnostic view the movie takes (and it is not atheist despite what people might say as it has angels and a heaven, it is just the structure of these is different to the model set out by Christian churches notably the Roman Catholic Church and this is why the Catholic League in the USA pushed for a boycott of the movie). The USA is a far more religious country than the UK. On a Sunday more people go to DIY stores than churches in the UK. Despite the increased popularity of faith schools this has not increased actual church attendance very much and religion actually remains irrelevant to the bulk of the UK population. The picture is very different in the USA, something the country is well aware of. The second thing is that 'The Golden Compass' is a very British movie. It does not move into an alien fantasy realm like The Lord of the Rings or the Narnia stories which sometimes have parallels with the USA or people can at least draw parallels to the USA. American citizens are generally disinterested and unknowledgeable about things which happen even a short way outside their borders so a movie set in Britain is not going to interest them, especially when there is really only one US character: Lee Scoresby played by Sam Elliott. Neither is it the twee world of Britain as portrayed in the Harry Potter movies. We know US audiences have difficulties with 'alternate worlds', the 'Sliders' (1995-2000) series notwithstanding, just look at the problems they had with 'Fatherland' (novel 1992; movie 1994). 'The Golden Compass' does very well at showing a different UK where not only do people have their souls (yes and they have souls so it is not atheistic) outside them in the form of 'daemons' (maybe this word and the fact that the animals look like familiars also caused problems for Catholic USA), but history has run a different course.

Anyone who knows Oxford and/or London will recognise many buildings shown in the movie but between them are many others that are alien. The style of the country is 1930s fashions mixed with a combination of steampunk and magic as the characters travel in airships and yet there are magical devices too. This is not as easily accessible as a world of orcs, hobbits, dwarfs and wizards which has become so well established in our psyche. In addition, what does come across from Pullman's work is challenging for the average audience member. In Narnia there is a simple message: an allegory of Christianity - sacrifice of the chosen one (i.e. Aslan/Christ) and his rebirth leads to redemption for all who follow him. In the Middle Earth of The Lord of the Rings, there is a similar good vs. evil, with temptations (especially in terms of power) along the way even for the good at heart, but fellowship and faith will win through and allow the restoration of the correct hierarchy, i.e. the return of the King and there is analogies for the time that it was written in with Mordor representing the Nazis/Soviet Communism, the hobbits as the brave British and the elves as the Americans sailing to a new world. [

In 'The Golden Compass' things are intentionally not so clear. There is a young girl, Lyra (played very capably by Dakota Blue Richards who despite the name seems to be British or certainly can do an excellent British accent. Interestingly Christopher Lee (aged 85) continues his dominance of evil nobles in recent blockbusters, appearing as First High Councillor of the Magisterium (he was Saruman in The Lord of the Rings movies; Count Dooku in Star Wars II and III)), getting involved in adventures just like Lucy in 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' and similarly learning new strengths and skills. There is Lord of the Rings/Narnia style redemption for the deposed polar bear king, brought back from alcoholism to overthrow the usurper. However, there is more ambiguity even in the simpler form shown in the movie. Lyra finds out who her parents are and one clearly is devious if not outright evil. Unlike in traditional stories, including Harry Potter which in many ways is not of contemporary Britain but of an earlier age remembered, where being an orphan is seen as legitimate, Lyra turns out to be illegitimate and also the result of what turned into a bitter encounter between her parents; possibly more relevant to many children in the audience today than being orphaned, but again far more challenging and ambiguous than the other routes these epics offer. Above all there is the sense that authority should not tell us all the answers; as one of the witches says (and again this may upset some viewers that witches are heroines, very reminiscent of wartime resistance fighters - Eva Green an actress I admire plays the lead one so I accept I am biased) it is about free will, the ability to choose the wrong as well as the right path, in fact the opportunity to choose at all. 'The Golden Compass' has many of the trappings of other fantasy epics such as full-scale battles and a child heroine but it and its sequels (if they are ever made given the poor reception in the USA) will always challenge the audience's assumptions far more than these others and thus I doubt it will ever do well in the USA where the audience wants easy stories and demands a happy ending not a complex one and consequently without the US box office dollars it will not thrive in the way the more Christian-orientated fantasy epics will. In some ways, in our world, the battle Lyra is fighting in hers, is already lost.

Friday, 28 December 2007

What Do 'Director's Cut' Versions Add?

Being off work for an extended period for the Christmas/New Year break is allowing me to catch up on DVD watching and return to some old favourites too. Today I watched 'The Good German' (2007) a reasonable attempt to make a version of those black and white thrillers set in Berlin and Vienna at the end of the Second World War such as 'Berlin Express' (1948) and 'The Third Man' (1949) and even 'Popiół i Diament' ('Ashes and Diamonds' - 1958) though that is set in Poland and has no US characters; a similar recent project was 'Europa' (also known as 'Zentropa' - 1991) which is pretty surreal at times but like 'The Good German' features an American getting mixed up with a German woman with secrets. Anyway, 'The Good German' is not bad, but it needs a bit more verve as it seems to drag at times. The real reason for referencing was not to discuss its own merits but because seeing it reminded me of a poorly informed review of the movie 'The Innocent' (1993) which had poor reviews. It is set in Berlin in 1955 when the Americans were trying to tap Soviet phone lines. Anyway, whatever the flaws of the movie (which I have never seen but I read the book) the most ill-informed criticism was that Isabella Rossellini who plays Maria Eckdorf was too old for the part (she was 40 when the film was released; Maria Eckdorf is 36 in the book, not 30 as some essays say) as clearly the reviewer assumed the innocent of the title had to be the female character when in fact it is the 25-year old Leonard Marnham. You cannot effectively criticise a movie, especially one taken from a book if you do not know what it is aspiring too. The most humourous example of this came in one critic's review of 'Cyrano de Bergerac' (1990) in which he admired the film but said he could not understand why they had relocated the action to 17th century France as opposed to 20th century Jersey. He had mixed it up with the long-running UK television series 'Bergerac' (1981-1991; 87 episodes) which featured a contemporary detective working on the island of Jersey.

Anyway, sorry for that aside, some comments that I have wanted to introduce but did not seem worthy of their own posting. It brings me to the focus on this posting which is about 'director's cut' versions of movies. Though some of these pre-date the advent of DVDs it is the increased capacity of the DVD format which has meant a desire to fill them with hours of 'extras' ironically stretching sometimes on to a second, third or fourth disk. The usefulness or interestingness of these can vary considerably. The section of deleted scenes for 'Blade II' (2002) has very cynical commentary about the director grabbing any discarded piece of footage to fill up the disks, though one clip does reveal a deeper relationship between Blade and the vampire Nyssa. The deleted scenes for 'Spy Game' (2001) I found really fascinating as it showed a lot more about the characters and especially the love triangle which does not feature in the main version of the movie. In addition, it is interesting to check out the locations, none of them are where they are supposed to be in the film and Oxford prison (at the time a closed British prison but which is now a restaurant complex) stands in for a prison in China very well.

I recently watched the so-called 'Extended Editions' of 'The Bourne Identity' (2002) and 'The Bourne Supremacy' (2004) and I do not know why they did not count as directors' cuts, maybe because the initiative came from the company rather than the director. I do not know how much time they add but they certainly flesh out certain aspects especially the part of Nicky played by Julia Stiles and it stops her seemingly popping up out of nowhere. I know it is bad for movies to drag but in ones of this kind in which there is a lot of background to unravel, a little more footage filling in characters, especially the ones who are going to appear in the sequels, really helps the viewer.

Directors' cuts effectively put some or a lot of the deleted scenes back into the main movie. The length of film people can tolerate seems to fluctuate. It did seem that around 90 minutes was the top limit for a multiplex successful film then someone released 'Titanic' (1997) at 194 minutes, i.e. 3 hours 14 minutes which is beginning to approach the length of a Bollywood movie. Its popularity showed that people are willing to watch longer versions of films. In addition, there was the thing that the 'director's cut' as opposed to the 'exploitative, movie company cut' is closer to what the director intended. The most famous was probably 'Blade Runner: The Director's Cut' (1992) for which the director Ridley Scott put back in deleted scenes from 'Blade Runner' (1982) which suggest that Rick Deckard, the hero of the movie, is actually a replicant (i.e. android) like those he is hunting down. It also removed the 'happy' ending of Rick and Rachel flying away from the grime of Los Angeles to a green wilderness using footage shot for another film. I agree with including these changes, but I did dislike the removal of the voice over by Harrison Ford who plays Deckard. The reason for this is his explanations filled out the details of the dystopian world that is shown in the film (a heavily polluted, derelict Los Angeles of 2019 - only 12 years away now) and also link back to the classic 'hard boiled' detective novels of 1930s-50s and American film noir movies of the 1940s-50s which often include soliloquies (i.e. the hero(ine) effectively addressing the audience directly) and so gave it a futuristic spin on an established genre helping to make it a classic. Anyway, this year, a second director's cut of 'Blade Runner' called 'Blade Runner: The Final Cut' has been released to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the original release.

I accept that editing for commercial reasons or so the average audience does not get lost in the director's or the scriptwriter's complex story, does take the movie away from what was intended. However, saying that it does not mean it creates an unsuccessful product. I had a friend who termed the released version of 'Dune' (1984) 'a torso' in his view because so much had been cut from. The movie ran to 137 minutes anyway and a 189-minute version was produced though not approved of by the director David Lynch (partly because it pads out the movie by repeating some scenes rather adding back in many deleted scenes). The trouble is that the book is hundreds of pages long with innumerable characters and sub-plots. It is complex enough to watch as a mini-series and would have lost the audience in your average cinema. Thus, for purists and those knowledgeable of the 'Dune' arc it may have been been butchered but for the average cinemagoer it is an imaginative, exciting and visually impressive film.

Finally this brings me to the director's cut I have just watched, which is another from Ridley Scott. His 'Kingdom of Heaven' (2003) was reasonably successful. It is about a blacksmith, Bailian, in 1184/5 (between the 2nd and 3rd Crusades) travelling from France to Palestine to inherit his father's barony and being caught up in the battle for Jerusalem around the period of the death of the Crusader King Baldwin IV. It was criticised at the time for playing around a little with history. The Templars are shown as being more blood thirsty than they were but the behaviour of many of the people featured such as Reynald de Chatillon, Guy de Lusignan, Almaric de Lusignan - Constable of Jerusalem (called Tiberias in the movie after one of his other titles presumably so there is no confusion with Guy or with Almaric who is the hero's sidekick), Queen Sibylla, King Baldwin IV are portrayed pretty accurately as we can tell. The movie was unpopular in the USA as at the time of the war in Iraq it seemed to be too sympathetic to the Muslim side, though Salah-al-Din was renowned for his chivalrous behaviour. The original version of the movie had drama with both battles and political scandals, a romance between Sibylla and Bailian and spectacular scenery.

In 2005 a 4-disk director's cut version was released. There are obviously loads of extras but it is the 45 minutes which have been restored to the main film which have made a huge difference and change the whole dynamic of the film. It shows throughout how removing even a few minutes can alter a film greatly. In the new version you see far more about Balian's background and realise that the priest is actually his brother who betrayed the suicide of Balian's wife (following the death of her child) and that Balian's father was brother of the lord of the manor. You also see what changes Balian brings to his barony; King Baldwin's part which was restricted to a few interchanges with Balian in the original is deepened too and you realise that beneath the make-up (Baldwin was a leper) that it is Edward Norton playing him. The relationship between Sibylla and Balian is made far more convincing by the extended portrayal of its development and this makes more logic in terms of the choices the characters make. Sibylla's son, also Baldwin was missing from the original cut but his reappearance just in a few scenes make Sibylla's motivations and actions clearer. In many ways it is the same film, but it is also a different film and it is quite astounding that for 45 extra minutes you get a much deeper story. Ridley Scott is always good on visuals, but there is not much additional material in the battle scenes, it is the small scale stuff of people talking to each other, showing their connections to others and behaving in certain ways that make this director's cut a worthwhile one to watch even if you have seen the original version.

I know that other director's cut versions may not be so successful, but I am certainly going to keep my mind open to viewing them if they can add something as successfully as Scott has done in returning to 'Kingdom of Heaven'.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

What Annoys Me About ... Dustbin Bags Today

Well, I have finally moved house and was actually online within two days of getting into the new house compared to 6 weeks last time. The issue was then finding the various cables to connect to the system which was achieved yesterday. This is the third time I have 'downsized' so it is always an issue of having boxes of things that you cannot unpack in the new house. This is despite all the local charity shops having another two carloads of my belongings and another load going to the dump.

My biggest gripe in all this moving, and I did most of it myself as removal companies are: a) expensive, b) often unreliable, c) often fully booked up, is the problem with black dustbin bags. Traditionally the British used to move their possessions in old tea chests which were large wooden cubes that could be stacked. However, for most people sometime in the mid-1970s black dustbin bags became the norm. I imagine the rich have special boxes and so on, but for most of us it is a question of putting things into black plastic bags, lugging them to our car and then unloading them at the other end. Up until about two years ago these bags were made of thick black plastic and even when they had been used to carry clothes or ornaments or kitchen utensils they were still generally sound enough to use as dustbin bags. However, people have realised that they are a nightmare when thrown away as they do not biodegrade for centuries. In their place we now have less shiny, biodegradable bags which are great for the environment but totally unfit for purpose. In the past I have never had a dustbin bag split on me while moving house (something you know I do pretty often, I am now in the third house I have lived in 2007) but with these new feeble bags I shed one load on the doorstep of a charity shop, I had actual rubbish pour out a dustbin bag and blow across the street taking me ages to retrieve if I was to avoid upsetting my new neighbours, I had a bag of bedding split dropping it all on to the dirty street. I bought dustbin bags from three different supermarket chains but none was any better than any other. The only solution was to buy what are called DIY bags (from 'Do-It-Yourself') which are as thick as the old dustbin bags but much smaller so needing more of them, and, of course, they are more expensive.

I am all for recycling and reducing the impact on the environment (I have replaced almost every bulb in the new house with the low wattage 'eco' bulbs already), but I also believe in being able to buy things which do the job they are supposed to do and in the UK I can certainly not say that about dustbin bags, even when using them in dustbins, let alone for removals for which they have been in common usage in the UK for the past three decades.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

UK Society: Divided and Lacking Social Mobility

Regular readers of this blog will know I am acutely aware of the difficulties of British society and how a lot of these are driven by corrosive attitudes and obsessions, notably over property and the very self-centred, consumerist attitudes so prevalent in the UK today. To some extent, people in Britain have been lulled into a false belief that the social divisions of the past have begun to be eroded. Apparently in the 1970s (a time when sociology was really developing as a research area) the UK was one of the most socially divided industrialised countries in the world. This was despite having had free education for a century and a welfare state since the 1940s.

One key difference between the UK and neighbouring states in Europe was that the UK had neither had a revolution nor had it had suffered the upheaval of either being occupied by a foreign power or being under a dictatorship. All of these factors disrupted the societies across Europe. Ironically people from ordinary backgrounds stood more chance of advancement under a Fascist, Nazi or Communist dictatorship than they did in British democracy. Partly, as I have mentioned before, this is because the UK is not a true democracy, half of its parliament is unelected and the prime positions in the Civil Service, Government, Military and its established Church, go to people (still predominantly men) who have attended a small number of select fee-paying schools called 'Public Schools' (ironically very exclusive and certainly not public). The next layers beneath the highest in each branch of British public life are held by people who attended less exclusive and a bit cheaper private schools. The highest that a person who has gone to a free state school can rise is to something like a senior doctor in a hospital or a chief constable (i.e. in charge of all the police of one county) or a brigadier in the Army or possibly their Naval equivalent (the airforce, the RAF, is more exclusive). Given that you have to be put on the lists of these schools the moment you are born and the annual fees are far higher than the average annual salary of people living in the UK, unless you have very wealthy parents you stand no chance of getting in and thus no chance of moving into the higher levels of British society.

Now, I accept that other European states have nobility and very wealthy families, the UK is not unique in this, it also applies to countries elsewhere in the world. However, if one looks at comparator industrialised countries, there are exclusive schools, but, say for example the Grandes Ecoles in France, even the poorest, intelligent pupil can get into them. In countries without a monarch, an ordinary person can rise to be president. In addition, middle ranking people who in the UK may never rise above being a low-level lawyer or civil servant or doctor or bank worker, similarly can reach higher positions. This means there is something to aspire to and you are not ruled out of so many areas the moment you are born. The USA has also suffered from social division. It has wealthy families who are politically powerful, but again it has structures that allow people to advance, no matter what their backgrounds. Show me the black people in the UK who have attained the level of power that Colin Powell or Condaleeza Rice have obtained; this is despite black people coming to Britain for at least the last 2000 years. In public service, the military and so on, as an ordinary person you can rise in a way that you could never do in the UK.

What the UK resembles is the post-Communist states like Russia, Poland, China (which is now really only Communist in name) where influence in political circles and so access to money from the break-up of the state machinery can give you an unfair advantage. To some extent social mobility in these states for those coming up in enterprise is currently greater than such small business people struggling in the UK. Many successful British entrepreneurs come from outside the UK especially from Eastern Europe and the Indian sub-continent, rather than from within Britian. That is because they can draw on resources unfettered by British constraints. In addition they have often had access to the best education that their British equivalents are denied. This is one explanation for the growing percentage of people from an Asian background working as doctors in the UK. Ordinary white and black British people simply do not have access to sufficiently high level schooling to even aspire to be doctors and the wealthy whites in Britain lack the altruistic attitudes of their Asian-background counterparts to do something as beneficial as care for people.

The sharp divisions in Britain were exacerbated in the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher (Prime Minister 1979-90) infamously said there was no society, just families and individuals. However, her policies reinforced the social divisions in the UK. She was the daughter of a grocer and had only attended grammar school (i.e. a free school, though in the upper educational category) in her youth and yet made it to be prime minister, something I doubt will be repeated in the UK in coming decades. Her obsession with property-ownership wrecked the state housing sector (which in Scotland had housed 60% of the population) and pushed people to own property or to be seen as irrelevant. The rise in house prices increased homelessness, rising the numbers of people living on the streets or temporary accommodation and also removed from many working class people affordable housing permitting them the money to spend on improvement for themselves and their children, especially in terms of education. In addition, Thatcher scrapped grants for students to attend university substituting loans instead. Working class people have less access to credit and a greater aversion to debt than people in other classes so again it closed down what had been becoming at least one way for working class people to get on through education. This was worsened anyway by budget cuts on education and pressure on local authorities who ran schools at the time to cut their expenditure too. Certain schools were encouraged to leave the local authority system and it was these elite 'grant-maintained' schools which received direct, generous government money whilst the so-called 'bog standard' schools that most children attend could only survive by not repairing buildings, by selling off playing fields and fund-raising events.

Whilst the UK, like the rest of the industrialised world was facing shifts in industrial patterns, the economic policies of Thatcher led to a very abrupt closure of manufacturing industries leading to unemployment of over 4 million people (about 16% of the working population of the time). Whilst work in manufacturing and related industries, such as fuel resources, was varied there were many skilled jobs that had paid well in the 1960s and 1970s. In their place came low-skilled, low-paid service jobs, so cutting household incomes among working class people and also destroying the ladder for improvement through skill development and hard work. In a call centre you come and leave without having gained new skills and there is little chance for promotion. Similarly the casualisation of labour has increased with large numbers of even office workers being on short-term contracts. If they lack the skills needed when a company changes methods they are simply laid off and other workers employed. Businesses constantly whine that they want schools and universities to train workers to exactly match the skills they need; yet seem entirely unwilling to see a role for themselves in that process, again another difference from comparator countries, notably France and Germany.

Thus, through the 1980s the few opportunities for a solid base for the working class (the majority of the population) and their chances to rise up the societal ladder were pretty quickly smashed. John Major (Prime Minister 1990-7) who worked as an ordinary bank manager and rose to the highest position in the UK liked to talk of the UK's 'classless society' (for those unfamiliar with UK terminology 'class' in UK usually refers to socio-economic groupings, commonly working, middle and upper classes and sub-divisions in these; since the 1980s we have also had the 'underclass', people who are deemed to have dropped out the bottom of society and are usually homeless). In the early days of his regime Blair also spoke in the same terms, though it is notable that it did not survive his first time of office (1997-2001). It is clear that any reference to classlessness was a fantasy. Unemployment has fallen in the UK since the end of the 1980s, but the restructured economy is still very rigid in preventing people rising socially.

Why am I going on about all of this now? Well, it is because some people have been shocked by evidence that has appeared this week that brings how the reality of it. At the age of 5 the most intelligent children from poor backgrounds score far higher than the least intelligent children from rich backgrounds in terms of communication skills and other scholarly measures. By the age of 7 however, the least intelligent children from rich backgrounds exceed even the most intelligent children from poor backgrounds and from then on the poor children never catch up ever again and throughout the rest of their schooling never match less intelligent rich children. Partly this stems from the way British schooling works with the emphasis on projects and getting internet resources; the heavy encouragement to take additional classes outside of school hours and increasingly that children need to have home tutors too, all of these things are beyond my budget (and as I keep saying I earn 50% more than the average annual salary so am far from 'poor') let alone the average working class family's resources. With secondary schools being increasingly selective, when they reach 11, the poor children lose out in entrance tests to rich children who on an objective basis are less intelligent than them. Again partly this is because the tests are focused on knowledge common in the middle and upper social classes rather than the experience of the working class. It is not surprising then that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge (reckoned to be the best universities in the UK) still take over 47% of their students from private schools (there are about 2000 private schools in the UK out of a total of around 30,000 schools of all kinds; primary schools tend to be much smaller so there are 22,300 of these whether state or private alone). More politicians for example have gone to either Oxford or Cambridge than any other university, so being blocked from them means you are often effectively blocked from parliament and alternative routes of the past such as coming through a trade union to being a member of parliament have been weakened as trade unions were hammered under Thatcher and have haemorraged members in an era when people are on short-term contracts and fearful of not being re-employed if they are politically active.

What has alarmed the government (and it is good to see that they are alarmed rather complacent) is that despite all the policies of the last decade under a Labour government (which coming from a Socialist background is supposed to be equality of opportunities for all) and an awareness of the need to challenge social division at least going back to the Labour governments of 1964-70, as a UK citizen it is as unlikely that your standing in society will improve during your life as it would have been 33 years ago. You could walk into a maternity ward at a hospital today and accurately predict the kind of work all the babies there will be doing in 2025 just by looking at their parents. (In fact whether you chose a state-run hospital or a private one would give you a good clue for a start). None of those babies will be able to improve on the level of income or education that their parents have.

Recently there was commentary on the novel by Aldous Huxley 'Brave New World' (1932) which tends to get overlooked when referring to dystopian novels in favour of '1984' by George Orwell (1948). However, the novel shows a society driven by consumerism and in which happiness comes in the form of a pill. For this posting, though, is the fact that all children born in the UK of the novel (they are all test-tube babies) are categorised from birth into a range from Alpha to Epsilon depending on their mental abilities. That is effectively what we have in the UK today, except that an Alpha-intelligence baby from a poor family will be beaten in life by a rich Epsilon-intelligence baby. Our current dystopia is not even based on how beneficial a child can be to our society in terms of aptitude the way Huxley's was, it is far more arbitrary than that, it is simply based on who your parents are, nothing more.

Finally I have come to understand why in my teenage years my father encouraged me so strongly to emigrate. By then it was too late I was infected with the British fear of the unknown and instead shackled myself to a society in which I can never have any better standing than my father did. In fact in terms of income, adjusting for inflation, I earn much less than he did when he was my age.

If birth is the only qualification for success in the UK no wonder we are lagging behind rival countries. We effectively exclude millions of talented people from ever getting into a position to use their talents. How many people working in call centres in the UK, could instead be running successful businesses or government departments, if they had simply been born to richer parents? The UK would rather adhere to almost feudal mentalities than shake these up to benefit itself. I recognise that other industrialised countries do not have all the solutions, but if I was going to have a child I would want them to be born in one of those countries and at least feel that they could get as far as they have the ability to do so rather than being held back by the unbreakable caste system which denies them so many opportunities simply because of who I am rather than who the child is.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

When a Movie Remake is Better than/at Least as Good as the Original

It is rare to find a movie remake which is better than the original. Sometimes it makes you angry to think they even bothered to waste the money on it when each year there are scores of movies that are not made or if they are they are never distributed (I am still waiting for the UK movie made in the early 2000s, about female gladiators, something Britain was renowned for in the Roman period, to find a distributor). One of the worst example is the remake of 'Psycho' (1960; 1998), in which they did not even try to alter the film, it was just made with different actors and replicated scene-for-scene. In many cases the remake simply aims to draw on the title of the film, for example, 'Get Carter' (1971; 2000) or with 'The Jackal (1997) [a kind of remake of 'The Day of the Jackal' (1973)] or 'The Italian Job' (1969; 2003) or more obtusely 'Payback' (1999) from 'Point Blank' (1967) with very little of the original story remaining (accepted, 'Payback' shed the title and kept much more of the plot than the others). I suppose there is a kind of 25-30 year cycle with people seeing something that was good for one generation being worthwhile for a new generation, hence a similar gap in these cases. To a great extent it is about somehow 'fattening' the old movies. The success of 'Psycho' and especially 'Get Carter', 'Point Blank' and 'The Day of the Jackal' is that they were 'spare' movies, relying on tension and grittiness rather than effects. Even 'The Italian Job' which in 1969 was over-the-top was insufficiently loud and brash for the 2000s. However, if 'The Italian Job' (2003) had kept the action in Venice as it does in the early part of the story it would have been a much more successful movie, moving back to California weakens it severely.

So many remakes are poor because they lose the attraction of the leanness of the original. Especially in thrillers, bleakness adds to the sinister nature of what is being shown. 'Get Carter' can almost be seen as a docu-drama of people living in northern England in the early 1970s; it shows the wealthiest to the poorest and all kinds of people in between but at best their lives are tawdry, at worst they are grim. No Hollywood drama could come close to that. Why not take the remake's plot and make a wholly differently named movie?

One thing about remakes is Americanisation. Hollywood, for some reason, despite all the scriptwriters there, is always looking for successful stories from around the world, especially France and Japan. 'Ringu' (1998)/'The Ring' (2002), 'Ringu 2' (1999)/'The Ring Two' (1999)(remade by the original director, Hideo Nakata), 'Ju-On: The Grudge' (2003) / 'The Grudge' (2004) (remade by the original director, Takashi Shimizu', 'Honogurai mizu no soko kara' (2002) / 'Dark Water' (2005) amongst others are examples from Japan in the horror category. Hollywood has had an interesting relationship with Japan, people always refer back to 'Sinchinin no samurai' ('The Seven Samurai') (1954) influencing 'The Magnificent Seven' (1960) but there is also an interesting relationship with other Westerns. Partly this is because the Wild West and Medieval Japan, especially the pre-Tokugawa era (i.e. pre-17th century) had similarities in the role of armed individuals working alone in lawless places and the sense of duty, loyalty, courage, etc. The other case cited is 'Yojimbo' (1961) remade as the spaghetti western (i.e. made in Italy rather than the USA but with American actors) 'A Fistful of Dollars' (1964). That is only part of the story as 'Yojimbo' took from an American story set in the USA in the 1920s which is most faithfully shown in movie form in 'Last Man Standing' (1996) which took the story back to its roots.

Hollywood has not only drawn from Japan but also European countries. 'Le Retour de Martin Guerre' (1982) was remade very successfully as 'Sommersby' (1993). The story is the same, about a man coming back from wars in the Basque lands of France in 1538 and to 1866 Virginia, USA. The story was a true one, but by putting it into respective contexts for the French and American audiences gives it a connection that creates a logic and a legal dynamic for the stories. The American audiences find it much harder to stomach a sad ending than European audiences do so remakes often have redemption if not survival for the heros of tragedies which is missing from the European originals. This is notable in 'The Vanishing' (1993) which is a remake of the most successful Dutch film ever, Spoorloos' (1988). In my mind 'Spoorloos' is the most successful horror movie ever. It has not blood and gore, and that is what makes it so frightening, because in it evil is not spectacular, it is mundane and that makes it more credible. I am unlikely to be assaulted by a many-headed demon when I walk down my street but there is a chance my neighbour will hit me over the head with a spade an bury me alive in his garden. That is why 'Spoorloos' which its incredibly bleak ending that the hero is futile to prevent, is so grim and will remain with you. In 'The Vanishing' it is all fine because a woman comes and digs him up at the end and he survives to wreak revenge. That shows the difference, I would argue, in terms of maturity (but may be also in national self-perception and self-confidence) between American and European audiences.

As noted above, it seems increasingly common for non-American directors to remake their own films in the USA. I think that is a healthy development as it brings more of the original character of the film to the remake. Increasingly too original actors appear. There may be an earlier case which I am not familiar with but the first time I noticed this was with 'My Father the Hero' (1994) which like the original, 'Mon Pere Ce Heros' (1991) featured the French actor, Gerard Depardieu. The remake 'Just Visiting' (2001) used not only the same writers and directors as in the original, 'Les Visiteurs' (1992) but also the two stars, Jean Reno and Christian Clavier (Clavier was also one of the writers). The original was another big hit in France and a minor one in the USA. Comparing the two shows up more of the differences between the French and American audiences. The story is about a medieval knight, Godefroy de Malfete and his servant, Jacquouille who are transported to modern day France/USA and the humour that arises as they try to deal with modern technology and behaviour. The original is set in a small village in France where Godefroy's descendant still lives though she has sold the castle top a descendant of Jacquouille's. The story is around the two medieval men trying to get home and rectify the accidental killing of Godefroy's prospective father-in-law to maintain the Malfete line. There is much humour over Jacquouille's descendant being wealthy in post-revolution France and the fact that actually the French Revolution did break feudalism for the benefit of social mobility in the country. However, there is also a sense of the importance of ties to the locality. Through re-locating hidden treasure Jacquouille becomes a wealthy man and engineers to stay in 1990s France.

'Just Visiting' had a much budget and so the medieval men, this time Thibault de Malfete and Andre le Pate, travel to modern day Chicago. Their attempts to find a wizard in order to return and Andre becoming wealthy are the same. This time they have to get back to save Thibault's bride and thwart the scheming Earl of Warwick. Their difficulty with cars, using toilets, fascination with light switches, etc. are all the same as in the original. However, in the remake the director and the writers take the opportunities to improve the story in parts. Being in the USA there is emphasis on the country as a land of opportunity and social mobility achieved that way rather than in terms of societal opportunities shown in the original. In addition, the message from 'Just Visiting' is in fact old world values have much to offer and stop you being exploited in the modern world, whereas in 'Les Visiteurs' old world values are relegated to the middle ages and in the contemporary world, it is the contemporary values which work. Julia Malfete, Thibault's descendant in 'Just Visiting' has to learn the values of the medieval person (actually the robust female role real medieval women had rather than the princessified one they tend to be popularly portrayed as having) to boot out her exploitative boyfriend and reclaim her inheritance. Maybe the movie was too far removed from the get-rich-quick, everyone-can-be-a-celebrity attitude of modern day USA to appeal to a US audience. What is improved is the motivations in both the story in France and in the USA which round out the story better without losing the humour or excitement.

Another example in which a remake tackled some awkward aspects in the original plot is 'The Assassin' (1993) (also known as 'Point of No Return') which is a remake of 'Nikita' (1990) a very successful French film. The plot in each is nearly identical, a young female junkie is given the chance of surviving if she becomes a government assassin. The scenes are often identical and while 'The Assassin' tries to be stylish and does it very well, it is difficult to match the savoir faire of the French original. However, the one improvement comes near the end. In the original a 'cleaner' (played by Jean Reno in the original and Harvey Keitel in the remake) tries to stop Nikita completing her mission and yet he is also there to clean up her mess. Thus, his role seems very confusing and it weakens the conclusion of the movie. In the remake, the cleaner is there to finish off the bungled mission and then dispose of Maggie, his motives are clearer and so the tension is more effective.

Now, you have read a long way without me really mentioning any movies for which I feel the remake is better than the original. I think the first one is obvious and that is 'Ocean's Eleven' (1960; 2001). Both effectively are star vehicles, with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Angie Dickinson in the original and George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia and Julie Roberts in the remake. However, the quality of writing is miles better. It is more effective because the focus is on one casino rather than five. That approach would have made the original movie far stronger as separating the cast means losing a lot of the dialogue between then which provides both tension and humour and brings out the diversity of characters which is something you want to highlight in an ensemble movie like either version. Both try to make a good deal of the Las Vegas background but the original loses the tension with the casino owner which is a good element of the remake. The story is much more twisting too (something which was overdone in 'Ocean's Twelve' (2004) to detriment of the movie). I am so glad that they remade this movie. The original is an interesting historical artifact but it is not a fraction as entertaining as the remake (and that is a man, who as you can see from above is not averse to enjoying 1960s movies).

Less clear is the remake of 'The Thomas Crown Affair' (1968; 1999). I accept that the original has a real style in a way that many 1960s movies did that is impossible to replicate today partly as certainly in US films everything is too opulent, forgetting that real style means a degree of sleekness: less is more; more alone is just too much. The key difference between the two movies are the motivations and the actions of Thomas Crown. In the original he simply oversees mundane bank robberies. In the remake he personally carries out thefts of paintings. Now, with the original you keep asking, why if Crown is supposed to be so wealthy does he need to steal more money. In the remake it makes much more sense. He is a thrill seeker, searching for unique experience and in many cases even the most wealthy man cannot buy a unique piece of artwork. In terms of female characters both Faye Dunaway in the original and Rene Russo in the remake are international, well-travelled very strong women which makes them a match for the Crown character played respectively by Steve McQueen (who I think does not lack glamour, but certainly the suaveness for Crown) and Pierce Brosnan respectively. I think Brosnan consequently wins out in the sexiness of the role. Interestingly for a film made in 1999 there is no more overt sexuality than in the original, it is clever enough not to need that.

Another winning element of the remake is the visuals and sound track. Now, I recognise that in some ways it is unfair on the original as at the time, the split screen visuals were innovatory and they do add to the movie, however, the remake's visual referencing of classic artwork, notably at the climax, Magritte's work and the use of classic music from Nina Simone, I feel wins out.

This has been rather a ramble through remakes and their originals. I am sure that remakes across borders and through time will continue. In some ways it is a shame as every remake means another new story is not being made and there are lots of good stories out there. I do hope that directors encouraged to make remakes learn from the good examples and take the opportunity to sew up plot flaws and do not forget that what often made the movie so successful in its original context is its sparseness. Tight, focused movies are the ones which remain with us and to overload them with too much extra is to entirely miss the point and reduces the impact.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Was 'Never Be The Same Again' a Lesbian Anthem?

This is another pop music question from my dusty bag of old tracks. The song 'Never Be The Same Again' was released in March 2000 and was the third track off former-Spice Girl, Melanie C(hisolm)'s solo album 'Northern Lights', one of the most successful of the albums released by The Spice Girls members after they broke up and this single reached number 1 in the UK charts.

It was co-written and co-performed by Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes one third of US female r&b trio TLC probably most famed for their 'Waterfalls' (1995). Lopes died in a car accident in 2002 aged only 30. She was a feisty character often in dispute with her fellow TLC members and had served 5 years on probation for burning down the house of her fiance after arguing with him.

Mel C, as she is commonly known, holds the record for reaching number one in the UK as part of a quintet and quartet (The Spice Girls before and after the departure of Geri Halliwell) as a duet and as a solo artist. She has sold 4 million albums on her own and was part of the sales of 55 million albums by The Spice Girls. Mel C was known as 'Sporty' Spice as she tended to adopt tomboyish sports kit dress and was heavily tattooed. There has not been much active speculation about her sexuality, but she certainly has appeared to be less girly than the others in The Spice Girls and if you have ever encountered female football teams you will find that the bulk of them are lesbians. There was speculation over her sexuality in 2000 when she shared a room with a female assistant. Revelations of this were reported to have led her into depression, something which it is good to see she has more than bounced back from.

Some of all of this, I suspect, was intentional packaging of Chisholm by their record company when they manufactured The Spice Girls so that everyone in the audience would have a particular woman in the line-up that they felt they could associate with. Mel C has stated very categorically that she is straight and I think that is more than enough assurance for anyone, and anyway it is her own business. I like her because, as early as 1997, she told 'Melody Maker' - 'New Labour is just Old Conservatives isn't it?' and coming from Liverpool has a clear old Socialist perspective on things, despite her respect for Margaret Thatcher's strength.

Now you might ask, why should I, who sees almost everyone as sitting on continuum of sexuality rather than being wholly in one camp or the other, be wittering on about this song and what relevance it has to lesbians. Well, it is, basically, that when it came out I said 'oh it's good to hear a lesbian song once in a while'. These days, in the wake of the axis of Marc Almond, Erasure, Bronski Beat, The Communards and Jimmy Sommerville, you can release songs in the UK with lyrics about gay men and no-one will raise an eyebrow, they will judge the song on its quality. However, I cannot remember one song in the UK which featured lesbian lyrics. Given that lesbians make up 5% of the UK population, so, around 3+ million women, it seems surprising.

Then I heard 'Never Be The Same Again' and thought, 'ah, there, that balances things up a little'. It is a rather wordy song but it is not bad, straddling the rock of Mel C and the r&b/rapping of Lisa Lopes. I even heard it in a Belgian lesbian club I was in; it was the only song played twice in the course of the evening.  You may wonder what I was doing in a Belgian lesbian club in a medium-sized town, well it had been hired out by two straight people, one a woman, one a man for a private party I was attending there and as part of the package they had employed the club's usual DJ. However, aside from this DJ, no-one I know seemed to accept that this song was a lesbian anthem, even one friend of mine who is very keen on media analysis. So, this posting is just trying to put the case for this song being properly considered.

I am not arguing at all that either Mel C or Lisa Lopes are/were lesbians; I think there is no evidence for this. People can often sing songs from a focus which is not their own gender or sexuality. However, it is interesting that two women were selected to sing this song and these two women were picked. Again, though, I suspect it was the record companies seeking to push their products into every corner. They knew that whatever Mel C's own sexuality, she had a strong lesbian following so it was like throwing those fans a little something. I imagine TLC might have had a lesbian following too as some of their songs do have a strong feminist take on things, as some areas of r&b do. Given the success of this record it had to sell to a lot of heterosexuals too and its quality probably shone through even if people paid little attention to the lyrics, as is often the case. By the way the lyrics are:

"Come on. Ooh, yeah./ Never be the same again./ I call you up whenever things go wrong./ You're always there./ You are my shoulder to cry on./ I can't believe it took me quite so long./To take the forbidden step./ Is this something that I might regret?/
(Come on, come on)/ Nothing ventured nothing gained./ (You are the one)/ A lonely heart that can't be tamed./ (Come on, come on)/ I'm hoping that you feel the same./

This is something that I can't forget./ I thought that we would just be friends./ Things will never be the same again./ It's just the beginning it's not the end./ Things will never be the same again./ It's not a secret anymore./ Now we've opened up the door./ Starting tonight and from now on./ We'll never, never be the same again./ Never be the same again./

Now I know that we were close before./ I'm glad I realised I need you so much more./ And I don't care what everyone will say./ It's about you and me./ And we'll never be the same again.I thought that we would just be friends (oh yeah)./ Things will never be the same again./ (Never be the same again)/ It's just the beginning it's not the end./ (We've only just begun)/ Things will never be the same again./ It's not a secret anymore./ Now we've opened up the door./ (Opened up the door)/ Starting tonight and from now on./ We'll never, never be the same again./ Never be the same again.

Night and day./ Black beach sand to red clay./ The US to UK, NYC to LA./ From sidewalks to highways./ See it'll never be the same again./ What I'm sayin'/ My mind frame never changed 'til you came rearranged./ But sometimes it seems completely forbidden./ To discover those feelings that we kept so well hidden.Where there's no competition.And you render my condition./ Though improbable it's not impossible./ For a love that could be unstoppable./ But wait./ A fine line's between fate and destiny./ Do you believe in the things that were just meant to be?/ When you tell me the stories of your quest for me./ Picturesque is the picture you paint effortlessly./ And as our energies mix and begin to multiply./ Everyday situations, they start to simplify./ So things will never be the same between you and I./ We intertwined our life forces and now we're unified./

I thought that we would just be friends./ Things will never be the same again./ It's just the beginning it's not the end./ Things will never be the same again./ It's not a secret anymore./ Now we've opened up the door./ Starting tonight and from now on./We'll never, never be the same again./ (Come on, come on)/ Things will never be the same again./ (You are the one)Never be the same again./ It's not a secret anymore./ We'll never be the same again./ It's not a secret anymore./ We'll never be the same again./ Never be the same again./ Never be the same again./ Never be the same again./ Never be the same again."

As I said, rather wordy for a pop song, but, now, tell me that is not a song about two female friends discovering they want a sexual relationship with each other. I acknowledge it could be about a man and a woman being friends and then finding a love, but then they should have got a man to sing one part. In addition, the reference to being a confidante and a shoulder to cry on is more characteristic of female friends than a man and a woman as friends. In addition the reference to a 'secret' and 'opening the door' e.g. of a closet, seem only necessary for a relationship which still might provoke comment as same-sex ones do even in the liberal UK, let alone the USA, where outside a few cities, such things are still viewed with askance.

So, chalk this up as the first, probably most successful, pop lesbian love song and let us hope that for the balance of the world we get to hear a few more. Do not let us straights and all the gay men steal all the fun and cultural references. Everyone needs something suitable to play when they propose and with civil partnerships becoming more common that means for lesbians too. Good on you Mel and Lisa for having the courage to produce this record.

Was 'Things Can Only Get Better' A Gospel Song?

I have been absent from the ether for a week or so with illness, but maybe that is a good thing as recovering from it my brain seems to be far more active than it has been all year. I have been plagued by writer's block through most of 2007 and yet this week loads of ideas for my partially complete Steampunk novella sprung up and I have been working hard at it and hope it will appear here early in 2008.

Having a pause from work and the usual pressures (and the house saga seemingly being over for the moment, the keys were collected on Wednesday and the house is ready for moving into, I just need time off work to do it and a car that does not keep breaking down) has stirred up odd items that have been lurking in my brain for a while. Now you might think 'why has he suddenly come up with these points after all this time?'. Well I make no apology for their age; from the start this blog has been about getting debris from my brain and casting it into the pool of the internet just like the Romans cast curses and prayers on tablets of clay into bodies of water (for readers who have come in late). So in this and the next post I turn to looking at two pop tunes from years back and pondering some things about them. I am conscious that these may be very obvious things to many people and they will see me as naive for not knowing the answer already (like when I found that 'Orange Crush' by REM (1989) was about the use of Agent Orange, a defoliant, by US forces in the Vietnam War and a part-time DJ said to me 'of course, the kids have always known that anyway'; he was younger than me but using the phrase 'kids' that way suggested he was apeing a middle-aged record producer, it may have been intentional irony, but was delivered deadpan).

Sorry my introductions are getting as rambling as those of the British comedian Ronnie Corbett did in the 1970s and 1980s. He was a sit-down comedian (I know one other, the Irish comedian Dave Allen) as opposed to a stand-up comedian, and used to ramble for ages before getting to the point of his joke. Tonight I am looking at the song 'Things Can Only Get Better' partly because I heard it on a sing-along radio show this week. This record was produced by D:Ream which was initially a 2-man outfit of Al Mackenzie and enduring member Peter Curran. The group was really a one-hit wonder and I can only find two singles and one album they released. 'Things Can Only Get Better' was released in 1992 and was popular in clubs; it got into the mainstream UK chart in January 1993 reaching number 24; the more pop-focused remix reached number 1 in January 1994 and spent 16 weeks at that position, (if you are going to have one hit making it as enduring as that). The Labour Party used it as its election theme song in 1997, though Curran was unhappy about this usage (maybe he was apolitical, anti-political or a Conservative, like a surprising number of pop singers) and following their landslide victory the single was re-released and reached number 19 in May 1997. This was before downloads so this was all on record sales. It is an incredibly catchy song; easy to digest and sing along to and, as the title suggests, very positive.

My proposition tonight is that in fact it is one of the most successful gospel songs in mainstream British pop music of the 1990s. We get Christmas songs that sort of fall into that category and also some pop-opera that covers religious themes, and the occasional thing like 'Shackles (Praise You)' by Mary Mary (2000) which is more clearly gospel and reached number 3 in the UK charts in 2000. However, the UK lacks sustained cross-over from contemporary popular church-focused music that is common in the USA. Thus, I would argue 'Things Can Only Get Better' was a stealth gospel track. The British seem rarely to listen to the lyrics of the songs they buy and so ones with different agendas can get through, notable is the fact that in a country which has a state religion (Christian Church of England) the first religious pop song to reach number 1 was George Harrison's 'My Sweet Lord' which spent 5 weeks at the top spot in 1970 and was back at number 1 following Harrison's death in 2002. 'My Sweet Lord' is clearly a Hindu song especially focused on the Hare Krishna denomination and includes a Hare Krishna chant in the background. Hare Krishnas are not popular among the general British population and yet they rushed to buy this single at a time when you needed hundreds of thousands of record sales to get anywhere near the number 1 spot let alone hold it.

The gospel focus on 'Things Can Only Get Better' partly explains why Tony Blair (UK prime minister 1997-2007; leader of the Labour Party 1994-2007) used it in his campaign. I have long argued that the victory in 1997 was not for the Labour Party but for the Blair Party and that his politics were a kind of semi-authoritarian brand of Christian Democracy with policies reminiscent of the Vichy France regime. He certainly features Christianity far more vehemently in his politics than any British political leader of the 20th century. I have no knowledge about the religious outlook of the writer of the song's lyrics, but I think if we look at them we can see clear gospel references certainly no more muted than those appearing in 'Shackles (Praise You)'. The lyrics are:

"You can walk my path/ You can wear my shoes/ Let her talk like me/ And be an angel too/ But maybe/ You ain't never gonna feel this way/ You ain't never gonna know me/ But I know you/ Teach you now that:/

Things can only get better/ Can only get, can only get/ They get on from here/ You know, I know that/ Things can only get better/

I sometimes lose myself in me/ I lose track of time/ And I can't see the woods for the trees/ You set 'em alight, burning the bridges as you go/ I'm too weak to fight you/ I got my personal health to deal with/ And you say:/ Walk my path/ Wear my shoes/ Talk like that/ I'll be an angel and:

Things can only get better/ Can only get better/ Now I've found you/ (That means me)/ (Will you teach me now)/ Things can only get better/ Can only get better/ Now I've found you/ And you and you/

You show me prejudice and greed/ And you show me how/ I must learn to deal with this disease/ I look at things now/ In a different light than I did before I found the cause/ And I think that you could be my cure/ And you say:/ Walk your path/ Wear your shoes/ Talk like that I'll be an angel and:/

Things can only get better/ Can only get better/ Now I've found you/ (That means me)/ (Will you teach me now)/ Things can only get better/ Can only get better/ Now I've found you/ Things can only get, can only get/ Things can only get, can only get/ Things can only get, things can only get/ Things can only get, can only get/ Things can only get better/ Can only get better/ Now I've found you/ (That means me)/ (Will you teach me now)/ Things can only get better/ Can only get better/ Now I've found you."

Superficially it seems to be about a man being very cheerful because he has found a partner and his life is looking up. However, I believe that is the wrong interpretation. Now there are clear direct references to being an angel but if you look you see there is stuff about walking the right path; being taught by this 'you'; seeing things in a different light than before the singer 'found the cause' and this 'you' enabling the singer to see beyond themself especially in dealing with the issues of 'prejudice and greed'. Thus, it seems jam packed with the kind of rhetoric used by many Christian preachers especially ones trying to make use of contemporary idiom. I would love to hear Paul Curran's views on this interpretation.

This song appeared at the time of the peak of the so-called Nine O'Clock Service (1986-95) in Sheffield which had a congregation of 600 at its peak and an average age of 24, so well out of step with other Church of England congregations. It is portrayed as having almost been a Christian rave at times. It dissolved itself when it began to be turning into a cult espousing Pelagian heresy (i.e. that man is responsible for his own salvation not through the grace of God).

Blair was seeking to tap into popular strands of Christianity and emphasised his youth at election, I believe the religious obsession distorted his politics in the direction of self-righteousness and authoritarianism. I think the song he used as his election anthem showed the British public what kind of prime minister they were electing, one well out of step with the areligious population of the UK. If only people looked at the lyrics they are singing along to, they would be more aware of what they were getting themselves into.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Property in the UK 7: The Housing Market Begins to Collapse

I mentioned in the previous posting that this was a bad time to buy a house in the UK and now I am going to outline the reasons behind that. Earlier this year I predicted that house prices in the UK were far outstretching the average income we would soon hit a period when prices would have to fall. Estate agents were unconvinced by this, but I am now being proved correct. In the UK people get nervous when the rate of increase of house prices simply slows so you can imagine how worried they are if they start falling as they have done for the past 3 months. For some reason buying a house is a key status activity that was particularly encouraged during the 1980s to the extent that now some lawyers will not represent you if you are simply a tenant (I have experienced this when trying to employ a solicitor and being turned away not because I could not afford their fees but because I was not an owner-occupier of a house). So everyone tries to buy a house, meaning demand especially in regions where there is work, is very high and house prices just keep rising and rising. This is exacerbated by familes fragmenting, more people living alone and the birth rate of the UK middle class rising for some reason. This year they reached a level that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) felt was 40% over-priced. Of course because so many people invest so much money in their property about 4-5 times more than their counterparts in France, Belgium, Germany, etc., they cannot afford to see the price fall.

Despite all of these factors there is a limit how far house prices can keep rising. People for some reason ignore their pressure on inflation which is wrong as the cost of houses also influences the cost of rents, house insurance and many other house-related factors. To reduce inflationary pressures the Bank of England has used its only economic tool and has repeatedly raised interest rates this year. However, its governor feels inflation is still too high and so rates may have to rise further. For the first time in decades in the UK people have started looking beyond interest rates to manage the economy and there have been murmurs of other credit controls, and though for a couple of months some credit cards were restricted with the retail sector apparently weak, these have been lifted again. The threat of such controls is enough to unsettle consumers. All of this stuff has come far too late. If it had been introduced gradually after the last serious dip in the UK economy in 1993 or even when Labour came to power in 1997 it would all be well-established now, to bring it in now abruptly is just going to be a shock to the system.

So we have a situation of the worst of both worlds. Interest rates are rising making repayment of mortgages harder and yet house prices are dropping which means people cannot rely on selling their house at a hefty profit in order to cover the costs of the money they borrowed on it. You can see why I am personally worried. I have over-paid on my new house, under-sold my old house and have cleared out my savings just at the time when the market is turning to slump. Look forward to a nice blog of a man with negative equity (i.e. owning more on the property than the property is worth in itself). This happened all over the UK in 1990-3 and is clearly going to happen again, I guess in the next 12 months.

The UK's addiction to every rising house prices and the Major, Blair and Brown governments' lack of imagination in terms of economic tools and lack of courage in adopting and applying them is going to condemn the UK to a cycle like this at least every 15 years, maybe more regularly, depending on how far the upcoming slump takes prices down this time. It impinges on the middle class whose wealth and in turn their consumption is based on their property often rather than their incomes (which have been rising far slower) and so a crisis in housing will mean an immediate retail crisis as we may already be seeing as people tighten their belts (even at Christmas when they usually spend the most). It impinges on the working class as well, as those who own property will suffer like their middle class counterparts but also as landlords/ladies either raise rents to cover increased interest payments or sell off unprofitable rental property (as I have experienced) so reducing the availability and raising demand and so rents as well. In addition, those working in the retail and transportation sectors will suffer from retail lay-offs and reduction of business and those in the small-scale building tray, eventually from the decrease of people wanting work on house (though this may be balanced in the short-term by people improving their houses in an attempt to increase prices).

My advice is do not try to buy a house at the moment, wait for prices to fall next year. Pay off as much of your mortgage as you can (most now permit over-payments these days) and tighten up on Christmas gifts, especially those bought on credit. If we batten down now there may be some funds left to benefit from the post-slump recovery when you will be able to snap up reposessed houses (though banks these days tend to sit on them until they can be sold at a set level, often above the prevailing average price in the district - another aspect which has pushed prices upwards, rather than disposing of them cheaply as they did in the 1980s and 1990s). Though I could see the problem on the horizon, because of other human pressures I have been pushed right into the trap and am anticipating that it will be a couple of decades before I return to the level of prosperity I once had; I also anticipate I will not be an owner-occupier for long and that I will lose my house to repossession in about 2 years' time so will be back in an even more cutthroat rental sector very soon.

Property in the UK 6b: Lessons Learnt

I am currently holding my breath regarding the purchase of a house, only my second in my life, but a process that has dragged on now for five months. The key thing that I have learnt and I imagine that I share this realisation with many people is that I have absolutely no power and influence. The bulk of the UK population is prey to the whims of both the professionals such as solicitors (for non-UK readers these a low-level lawyers who deal with house sales, wills, etc.), doctors, teachers, to salespeople like estate agents, insurance companies, etc. and to skilled manual workers notably builders, gas/electricity/water/car repairmen and so on. You can spend thousands of pounds and yet you are treated as naive (which you often are about particular issues) and so worthy of being both patronised and ripped off. I have experienced all of these things despite spending over £5000 (€7150; US$10,350) on estate agent and solicitors fees.

I was ripped off £10-15,000 on the sale of my flat and a further £5000-10,000 on the house I am buying. Constantly I have been pressured by telephone and email as if all the problems along the housing chain were my fault alone. Everyone has more power than me, the buyer of my flat constantly demanded extra payments and reductions that the estate agent encouraged me to pay rather than resisting him. The people further up the chain keep saying we are dragging our feet, but when we are ready, suddenly they want to delay 10 days and we are told there is nothing we can do about it. The only thing I have left is anger. When I hire someone I expect them to act in my interest not someone else's but none of the four people I hired this time (despite them being recommended, I do wonder how much worse those people do not recommend are) have done this.

I think paying thousands of pounds earns me the right to be addressed as an adult not a teenager, but clearly not. I accept that I am no expert on the housing market so I want clear, truthful information and then not to be told I am stupid. The mortgage lender seem to be the most well intentioned of the people I have been using, but even they despite direct questions like 'how much actual money will I get in terms of a mortgage?' they have been really opaque and the figure being lent to me fell from £128,000 to £113,000 then to £96,000 without any fees falling. If I had known at the start that in fact I could only borrow £96,000 then I would not have put an offer in on the house I did. This is the worst time to be buying a house. I know you will say I should have been better informed and so on, but given that I have attended university and do a job which pays 50% higher than the national average, if I have found it so hard it must be even tougher for the population without my education and earnings. Obviously I was in a weak position because of my landlord causing so much difficulty for me and with more time and less pressure, maybe, just maybe I could have escaped some of this bad treatment. The housing market is rotten to the core. These people may not be committing crimes but they are bullying and misleading ordinary people.

All I have left (given that all my savings have been wiped out to pay the shortfall in the money lent to me) is anger. Housing is at the core of British society to an extent unrivalled across the world so it is something we cannot escape, but why do we have to be over-charged and go through so much to be humiliated in order to participate in this process? I do really hope I am dead before I have to move house again. My fear now is that with all the expense and my persistent bad luck the new house will collapse or be repossessed.