November 17, 2007

Werner Herzog eating his Shoe

A while ago, there was a young film maker called Erroll Morris who was struggling to make his first ever film. At that time he came across an older director, Werner Herzog, who encouraged him to make a film and pushed him into doing it. Herzog said to our young hero that should he make the film, he Herzog would eat the shoe he was wearing. Well Erroll Morris made his film, and therefore Werner had to eat his shoes at the first public American screening- this is a video of Herzog eating his shoes and thinking about film, art and politics. Incidentally Herzog is still with us, recently he made the great film, Grizzly Man about a man who goes off to live with bears in the jungle, and Erroll Morris has become one of the great documentary film makers. And despite that nobody else has eaten a shoe on live television since...

American Economic Mobility

Some fascinating data has been issued by the Pew Charitable Trust over the last couple of days. In particular I think its worth thinking about two reports that they have compiled, concentrating on black and white earnings in the United States and on male and female earnings.

The report on Black and White earnings and social mobility is fascinating, it is based on income but the conclusions are rather interesting. The report suggests that there is still an income gap between Blacks and Whites, in the United States at the moment the median family income of a black family is 58% that of a white family. Furthermore social mobility is very differently structured for Blacks than for Whites, you see much more downward social mobility from the middle Class. A majority of Black kids whose parents have middle class income drift downwards, only 31% end up with higher incomes than their middle class parents, whereas for Whites 68% of them end up with higher incomes than their parents. Almost 45% of kids born to black middle class parents will end up in the lowest tenth of the earning population, that compares to only 16% of white kids from middle class backgrounds. I'd be interested to read some work on why this is still true but there is definitely still a disadvantage to being born with black skin in the US, and it seems to be a disadvantage independent of class.

The report on male and female income is even more interesting- because it points out that since the 1970s male income has fallen from 40000 dollars a year to 35 dollars as the average, whereas women's income has risen fast. I wonder in part whether that is to do with the erosion of industrial jobs in the United States and the creation of service jobs- and whether therefore you would see a similar phenomenon in the UK. Social mobility is different as well. Girls from less well off families find it difficult to rise to the upper quartiles and more difficult than their brothers. The authors suspect that this is because of teenage pregnancy which takes a girl out of the educational system at a crucial time, a time which can make the difference between attaining qualifications which aid advancement and not attaining those qualifications.

Its interesting to note though that equality between the sexes in terms of income, is not that far away. But equality between the races is a long way away from being acheived and indeed that situation is not even getting better. It will be interesting to see how these figures change in the years to come as well.

November 16, 2007


A very interesting Bloggingheads episode involving Jackie Shire and Jeffrey Lewis about weapons of mass destruction and Iraq and Iran. Both Shire and Lewis know what they are talking about- there are some really interesting titbits for example that intelligence that the US gave the IAEA specific leads to investigate, and none of them turned out to be true, and noone ever went back and questioned the intelligence even if it rested on one source. Intelligence that was disputed within the CIA with agents in the field and analysts fighting over what the intelligence about WMD meant and the fact that the German BND knew that the intelligence was wrong and had repeatedly warned the CIA that the intelligence they were using about biological weapons was unreliable. Furthermore the BND's German scepticism was softened by translators in the CIA. They also discuss events in Iran and Syria- I'm going to try and write a piece on Iranian nuclear armament later- but their views are very interesting and worth listening to.

November 15, 2007

Outbreak of Ego

Its my birthday, I'm 27 and therefore ancient!

Also worth noting that today is World Philosophy Day- so everyone get those thinking caps on!

November 14, 2007

American Gangster

Iago is one of Shakespeare's most interesting characters, a motiveless malignity according to Coleridge. We should be interested in Iago and his motivation because it brings up the question of what evil is, why men do evil and why they seek the fruits of evil. Ridley Scott's new film, American Gangster brings that question to the fore as well. Based on the life of the first generation of black drug barons in Harlem, Scott focuses on Frank Lucas, a key player in the late sixties and early seventies. Scott though presents us with not one but two characters, much in the mould of Scorsese's Departed, we have the cop and the criminal. And here, again as with Scorsese, they are presented as two sides of the same coin, but what we come back to again and again is their motivation.

Lucas is played with charismatic elan by Denzel Washington and the cop, Richie Roberts by longtime Scott colaborator Russel Crowe. The film concentrates on their stories- particularly that of Lucas and explicitly contrasts the two men. It shows how Lucas arose from the backstreets of Harlem, using South Asian heroine to finance his rise. He sold it cheaper and purer than the competition, effectively breaking the mob's control on it. He used his family to courrier it around and sell it themselves as he trusted noone else. Lucas was not taken in by the glamour of the criminal lifestyle, he sought to hide. He enjoyed his wealth to a limited and covert extent, finding a beauty queen Puerto Rican wife and houses for his mother and brothers to match his new riches. Ultimately Lucas is always in control in every shot of the film that he bestrides.

Roberts, the cop, is not so much in control of his private life. His most important moment there is an admission that he can't cope, not a declaration that he can. He sleeps with anything he can find- the audience of film critics visibly tittered at one unintentionally funny moment when his lawyer begged him to 'fuck me like a cop' and child support officers are always likely to turn up just as he has finished screwing an air hostess! But like Lucas he has rules to which he adheres. Whilst on the job he is a cop, nothing more, nothing less and is defined by his job. So he will hand in his partner if his partner commits a crime. He will give a million pounds back to the police department even if there would be no consequences to taking it. Everything he does in searching for Lucas is methodical, is cautious and thoughtful. Like a master spider, you know throughout the movie he will catch his fly simply because of his policing ethics.

The two men though share something else- and its a question asked of both of them- why? For Lucas the moment comes just after a boxing fight. He realises that he has become a target, because he yielded to his affectionate wife and wore a fur coat to the fight, he became conspicuous. He tosses the fur coat into the fire and watches the flames lick around it. His wife stares at him, uncomprehendingly, asking in her eyes the question why have you done that? For Crowe it comes towards the end of the film and this time its Lucas asking the question. Lucas points out that the million pounds that Crowe handed in would have ended up in the hands of corrupt police officials anyway, he points out to Crowe that whatever he does to Lucas the world will continue to operate and heroine will continue to be sold, why, Lucas asks, bother with this methodical investigation? Why not just take the money and head into the distance, taking back your wife, and living the high life?

Does the film give us an answer? It does through the words of an old mafia boss that Lucas arranges his distribution through. That boss turns to Lucas and says you have a choice, you can be successful and find enemies or you can be unsuccessful and have friends, but you can't be successful and have friends. What he points out is what for Lucas is quite clear, being a successful gangster has a price, the price is the ability to enjoy the fruits of success. The price of victory is eternal vigilance. Ultimately both for Lucas and Roberts ambition has conquered their souls. Lucas could of course run to enjoy the fruits of his success, but he doesn't because he wants to make the final deal. Roberts could leave with his wife and child, but that isn't even in question. He'll stay to catch the villain.

This is a well acted film. Washington commands the screen with a presence unlike most other actors of this age. In one scene, a confrontation between Lucas and Roberts outside a church, Washington stands with all the command and poise of a Spanish aristocrat, a sneer of cold command twisting his lips looking down on this wreck of a man below. Crowe gives a much less overstated performance, but he captures the private shambles and public purity of the cop he plays. It is worth noting that neither man was quite like this in real life- Lucas liked the high life more than Washington did, and Roberts didn't sleep with anything in a skirt. But dramatically the contrast- the tension between desire and ambition makes more sense- its something that Scott and his actors can explore.

That tension is explored less often than it deserves. More films explore the tensions say between family and relationships and ambition- take A Devil wears Prada, superficially a very different film but actually about a similar subject. Scott though is more realistic in the way that he explores family ties and ambition and their confluence. On the one hand, both Lucas and Roberts risk losing their families because of their ambition, but on the other their ambition, we can see, is what allows them families in the first place. In Lucas's case the Puerto Rican beauty that he marries is someone who he never would meet without his nefarious success. There is something of the American Dream here. Both Characters aspire to bring the money home for doing a good job. However in neither case does the model work. Lucas seeks to employ everyone else in his family in his business but ultimately is deserted by them when he falls. Roberts works all hours for his job, only to lose his wife and kids partly because his dedication to being a good man means that he won't take bribes to establish them in life. Again what we see is this contrast- ambition creates a situation where you can help your family, but letting it let rip means that in the end you neglect them or lose them.

There are some problems here too. Ridley Scott loses his complexity when he puts in a corrupt police officer, whose only role in the film seems to be to act with his buddies as a bully and provide a focus of villainy. In that sense Scott offers understanding to the real villain, Lucas, and not to those corrupt enough to be seduced by Lucas- he focuses on Eve and Adam not the snake. Russell Crowe does do his performance rather well- but he is becoming a caricature as well- this performance drunken, manly, tough is becoming the signature tune of an actor who has more interesting work within him. The women characters aren't sketched out well either- neither Lucas's wife nor Roberts's wife are really given any character.

Turning back to the central dilemma, what is interesting about it is the way that American Gangster reflects a society in which doing your job has become the substitute for an ethic. We all know why that is- in the longterm it is sensible not to be pettily corrupt- but that doesn't work obviously with all levels of potential income and the truth is that if you discount public service, there is no reason not to aim for what you can collect. The ethos of ego clashes in this film with the ethos of the job and it isn't obvious that the job wins- its clear that in the long run letting your ego rip leads to disaster, in the long run we are all dead, but it is also clear that not doing so leaves us with the question we would like to ask Iago:

What is the motive of a motiveless malignity?

Poor Novels, Great Films

A fairly interesting article in the Guardian today about the writer behind Rosemary's Baby, Ira Levin. Xan Brooks notes that it is often the worst books that produce the best films- with the exception of Rebecca Hitchcock adapted mainly material which was not classic. The same goes for many of the film noir films, one of the great and productive American genres, which were adapted sometimes from the highly literate work of Raymond Chandler but often from lesser known authors whose reputation today has vanished. We could go on- the same is true perhaps of Truffaut and the French new Wave.

There must be a reason that bad novels make great films- I think it partly rests in what Xan says. That great films expand on the novels- directors get a good story and then expand on its complexity and psychological impact after they get it. In that way they are the authors of the complexity and the interest, but they have a plot provided to them for their use. It simplifies that bit of the work that involves subtle research into plotting, whereas it allows them to concentrate on developing plausible characters on screen. A good novel doesn't allow you to do as much as a director to interpret the book in the same way- because the author has already done that bit- so either you react to the author and show a different motivation, or you follow the author, but you aren't being handed a blank slate.

I do think that that blank slate argument is important though and it accounts for the fact that great novels tend not to produce great films!

November 13, 2007

The Bungling of Bunglawala

Free speech is a value often abused and misunderstood. A curious case came up earlier this week which made me question some of the statements of that much maligned organisation the MCB.

You see yesterday, Inayat Bunglawala, a spokesman for the MCB, condemned the imprisonment of the lyrical terrorist (so called because she is a girl who likes writing poems about killing people like me on the net) because of what she had said and because she had downloaded manuals to make bombs from the internet, because it was a violation of free speech. Fair enough I thought, there is an absolutist argument about free speech that might suggest that conclusion.

Then I got rather confused. Because I was browsing, as you do, the socialist worker website and I came across a familiar name. That's right twas young Inayat and he was writing about that bill on religious hatred that everyone got up in arms about. Now I'd presumed that Inayat would be taking the same absolutist stance, but oh no. Look over here at the bottom section of the article and you'll find our friend's views about freedom of speech, it is important apparently to balance that against the potential harm and public good of the speech in question.

An interestingly contradictory set of statements one might think! Inayat believes and does not believe in absolute freedom of expression depending on the moment- it is my fundamental right to say that I want to bomb you, my fundamental right to download materials from the internet about bombing and to write poems about how nice your brains would look if only they were blown from your skull, but if I criticise a hegemonic religion and religious establishment that should be banned. Somehow I get the impression that Inayat is more worried about the power of priests than the sensibilities of people, somehow I get the impression that Inayat doesn't really care about Muslims, he cares about Islam as an institutional and ideological reality.

Somehow I think he is opposed to the very set of ideas which promote freedom of speech in the first place- to liberalism itself. Or perhaps its because Inayat just doesn't think blowing up people (Muslim, Christian, Jewish and atheist) is as important as the dignity of his particular Church.

The Salon

Jesse Browner has written a fascinating article in Bookforum tracing the social origins of the salon in early seventeenth century France. A Salon was the indispensible forum for the French Enlightenment- authors like Rousseau owed their importance in part to the charm they exercised in a salon. Browner shows that the earliest salon was that linked to Catharine de Vivonne, a leading aristocrat in early seventeenth century France and patron of arts. Catharine de Vivonne withdrew from the court early on in her life, setting up an aesthetical court nearby to which she attracted writers, artists, noblemen and wits. Her influence grew and even notables like the Prince de Conde, a plausible contender for the French throne in the mid century, went to her to pay her court. In doing so they entered a realm in which wit was the only passport, commoners and women found themselves treated equally at the table so long as they were entertaining conversationalists.

Browner links this phenomena to the rise of the epistolary novel- something that he is surely right to do. He should though link it to a greater extent to the rise of French philosophy- from Pascal to Voltaire, French philosophers relied on the salon for finding patrons and evaluating rivals. Furthermore Browner is too literary in his dating of the Salon's ending. He finds its end in a satire written by Moliere in 1658 which mocks the pretensions of the aristocratic patrons and their literary clients. Moliere's satire may well be devestating but the salon outlasted it- surviving right into the eighteenth century and becoming like the English coffee house a model which spread across Europe. Tolstoy mocks the artificiality of the salon in War and Peace, where Pierre is seduced by the beautiful Helene in the superficial surroundings of the Salon. The Salon like Helene is we are allowed to infer superficial and rests upon the pretence of civilisation and not its reality.

The Salon therefore survived, despite attacks on it right up until the nineteenth century. It survived as a locus of aristocratic female patronage of the arts, particularly in France and those places which emulated the French model of enlightenment. Consequently it gave birth to an ideal of female intellectual engagement and conversation that was one of the motors behind the enlightenment and the emancipation of women. Madame de Stael, the formidable patroness and thinker, would have been impossible without the Salon's creation. It was accused of fostering a society that had left behind martial virtue for female wiles, but its historical consequences were much less obvious than its opponents suspected. Martial virtue, for all the jeremaids of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, has not evaporated and indeed coping with its excesses seems to be one of the major tasks of our own time. The Salon though aided the cultivation of an intellectual revival which is one of our main tools to resist chaos and disorder, it also strengthened the position of women within aristocratic society, something that may have contributed to the great acheivement in the West of this century, the emancipation of half the human population.

The article, with which we started is worth reading, there are further implications to be drawn as I suggest about the Salon form, but its interesting to discuss the seed from which so much art and thought grew.

November 12, 2007

Terrorists and Gangs

I'm linking to an article I've written for the liberal conspiracy on Terrorism and its relationship to Gang Violence- I think there is something interesting lurking there about the nature of the terrorist threat that we face. Increasingly I have to say I'm coming to a very pessimistic conclusion. Not that we won't defeat Al Qaeda, I think that eventually Bin Laden and his cronies will be caught. But that we will increasingly see this kind of violence repeated all over the world by different groups from different cultures. There is a huge mixture of things going on with terrorism- but I think investigating the nature of violent so called third generational gangs is the way to go. Can I make a plea incidentally that people don't comment here but go and look at the broader article on the Liberal conspiracy site- I think the point is made with more evidence over there and its probably easier to argue if everyone has seen the evidence.

November 11, 2007

Lions for Lambs

Lions for Lambs is one of many films to recently come out and explore the meaning behind events in the War on Terror over the last couple of years. It has a three foci, three meetings between two people each time that it profiles and seeks to use to explain the disaster that the war on terror has become over the past couple of years. In Washington we see the experienced and canny reporter Janine Roth coming to interview the young rightwing senator Jasper Irvine, in a West Coast University, the academic Professor Stephen Malley has invited along a good but cynical student for a pep talk and out in Afghanistan two friends who studied under Malley get ready to fly out on a doomed mission. All three of these meetings interweave with each other. Irvine is the man whose plan is sending those two soldiers out into the rugged mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. The reason that those two are there though is that Malley encouraged them to think of a life of public service, something he is now encouraging Todd Hayes to think about as well. The contrasts and the connections are supposed to make us think- but they don't and the film fails because they don't.

One of the problems is that dramatically only one of these encounters actually works. The encounter between Meryl Streep playing the journalist and Tom Cruise playing the Senator is wonderfully handled- Cruise has never in his career been this affective or frightening, Streep is at her typically perfect level of performance and the meeting is a real battle of wits and personalities. The two actors throw themselves at the roles- interepreting them with a wonderful degree of subtlety and of course neither of them are ever completely innocent. Were that degree of balance true of the other two meetings then the film would work, but it isn't there. Robert Redford is just too good an actor for his counterpart, playing the student, Andrew Garfield to cope with. Redford dominates their discussion. Furthermore the two soldiers who are swiftly shot down and left alone on the field don't really have much to say to each other, they just suffer and shoot in the darkness, their scenes become purposelessly monotonous (not even obviously monotonous because the director intercuts them with the other scenes) and the audience swiftly gets tired of the lack of action.

The pity is that there is a really interesting film struggling to get out of this not so good film. The encounter between the journalist and the senator is about as good as political film making gets. One could imagine something with the psychological depth of Interview coming out of the dialogue between Streep and Cruise and there is something most definitely there. Their encounter is filled with passion- anyone who has seen the more polished supporters of the war in America will recognise Cruise's character. He blasts Streep off the stage at times with his prenouncement that America cannot lose, cannot lose the war on terror, that there are only two choices and one of them is defeat. You feel the sophistry but find it difficult to resist as does Streep. The point of the dialogue though is that often it is subtle, it requires thought to follow what is happening and were it to be abstracted from the film it might be the most intelligent thing yet filmed about the war on terror, with nuances on both sides.

But the problem is that the director, Redford, doesn't want us to think. He wants to hammer home his points. So we have the other two segments which are meant to remind us of the Senator's indifference to human life. We see young soldiers sent to war and dying in that war, in their countries' service. We see their ex-Professor discuss with a student the injustice of a country which sends the poorest off to fight and die for their oppressors, we see him argue with that student's modish cynicism. And somehow those two lecturing stories seem not to work. The deaths of the soldiers are sad and terribly sad. The lecture of the Professor is impressive to some extent. It is true that I think as I'm sure many others think of the bravery of those off in the wars of our world. But ultimately all those questions are dealt with without nuance. Ultimately the most affecting moment about the public interest is in observing not the virtuous cardboard characters of the soldiers, nor the sophistical sparring of student and teacher, but in the conversation between journalist and senator when the senator reminds her of her responsibilities as a journalist and how she has failed the nation. That is the moment at which it bit home to me that there was a public interest- not in the sermons but in the revelation that she too was a sinner.

We can see it as well in the argument about the war on terror too. One of the major issues about Cruise's character lies in the way that he uses emotion to make his arguments- the emotion of September 11th 2001, the emotional appeals against the evildoers and terrorists. The point that is being made is that we should use our reason- but then that point is lost through an emotional battering ram as crude as Cruise's. Soldiers are dying in Afghanistan, but people were dying before we got there and would definitely die if we left, their deaths are as legitimate. Emotion gets us nowhere- we need to work out the wisdom of courses of action using reason. We might get to the same conclusions as the film makers- indeed I think we would but the emotional appeal cheapens the argument and makes the film a counterpart to the appeals from the right that it seeks to satire.

Ultimately films don't stand or fall by faulty politics- great films were made in the service of hideous regimes, one thinks of Eisenstein's masterpieces in the 1920s. They stand or fall by their cinematic quality- the problem with Lions for Lambs is that the cinematic quality of the film falls short. Ultimately the stories don't mesh well together- the film is too obviously didactic, too emotional in its appeals. The pity is that there is a really good film embedded into this- if only Redford had let Streep and Cruise do their bit we could have had something fascinating, examining both politician and journalist and all the other themes he wanted to bring out. Instead we have a mess, in which the good and the bad coexist and you are left shaking your head at the end, knowing that so much talent went into this, seeing at least three good performances but emerging from the cinema dissatisfied.

This film tries to be great, but it fails. Its a worthy effort but it isn't a successful one.

CORRECTION Both Matt Sinclair and Lord N thought that I really enjoyed the film. I should highlight I didn't. Maybe this review doesn't convey enough what I thought but I thought that the film was preachy and over emotional, not reasoned. The thing is I thought there could have been an interesting film made of the conversation between Streep and Cruise- but that was not the film that came out in the cinemas. I hope that makes sense of the above- and apologise for not being clear.

Crossposted at Bits of News.

Henry's Cat

This was one of my favourite cartoons as a kid- and this is its theme tune- it is the Casablanca of Kid's cartoons.