January 26, 2008

In The Valley of Elah


The Valley of Elah is one of the latest in a line of films about Iraq and the war there. The Valley of Elah was the location of the battle between David and Goliath in the war between the Philistines and Israelis- the title gives a clue to the real subject of the film. At one point in the film the main character, the father of a US soldier, investigating his son's murder, tells a young boy the story of David and Goliath and tells him that the moral of the story is that you should go down into the valley of Elah, get close to whatever scares you, the Goliaths of your life, and aim your slingshot right at them the moment before they are about to kill you. You have to confront life and take the utmost risks and in that moment you become a hero, its implied that in that moment you become a man. The father, Hank Deerfield, is an ex serviceman, ex military policeman whose son seems to have taken his advice, gone to Bosnia and then Iraq and confronted evil. The question that the film poses is what happened to him.

What it reinforces rightly is an important lesson in a society which is largely demilitarised: that war changes people and can often deform or reform them. The soldiers that we are shown coming back from Iraq are definitely altered by their experience. Driven to seek out cheap thrills whether drugs or strippers, in order to find relief from dreams of horror in the desert. Life around barracks in America is shown as depressing: soldiers struggling from drink to drink, men getting into the army who are basically criminals before they start, the experience of war turning others into criminals- the horrors of Iraq and the ways that it justifiably empties soldiers of trust for others and turns them from normal young men into killing machines whose first response is to go for their knives. 'Doc' the son of Hank, a young man we are led to believe of impecable character before he went to war, gets his name 'Doc' from the particular way that he mocks Iraqi prisoners when they are arrested.

The contrast between military and civilian worlds is deeply embedded in this film. There are moments when the ordinary police come up against the fact that not having fought, they do not understand the mindset of soldiers. Furthermore all the way through Hank uses his intuition as an ex-soldier to argue about who might have killed his son: he too is willing to deal in violence whenever he suspects. The whole film is filled with a confrontational atmosphere: people don't talk, when they disagree, they shout and scream. All the aspects of life here seem disfunctional: the police department is riven with sexism and favouritism, producing macho posturing and screaming rows. Everyone lives at a high level of tension- everyone lives on the edge of their emotions. Tommy Lee Jones's performance as Hank is particularly impressive because his face reveals in its wrinkles all the emotions he has to contain in order not to scream out loud in pain and anger.

But the film needs to go further. The ending is trite- we suddenly have a solution through a confession but we never get inside the heads of those that commit the murder: however important it is to understand the way that soldiers are changed, we don't see enough of what propels people into the army. We never understand these soldiers' earlier lives and consequently we don't know to what extent what they become is innate within them. The film could have been stronger by giving us more detail about them. Furthermore there are too many longeurs here: what I'm sure the film makers intended to create tension, little dialogue and lots of moody music, merely irritates. It doesn't create atmosphere, but slows the film down. A two hour film is a good effort, but could have been more powerful if reduced to one and a half hours instead. Moody music is also no substitute for scenes that often have only two lines of dialogue- and more often than not, scenes are missing. It would have been interesting to see a scene for instance in which the soldiers being interviewed by the police lied, interesting to see their reactions and their ways of expressing their lies. Afterall the way that soldiers react to coming back from Iraq is the core of this film: and that's what we are missing.

Having said all of that, the performances are strong and there is a point to this movie. The point comes back round to Hank Deerfield's speech about the valley of Elah: the film is all about the effects of confrontation. Hank's son goes down into the Valley of Elah with his comrades and he is changed by the experience: changed into a bitter and deformed young man, crippled mentally, sent to drugs and prostitutes by the experience. All his comrades too are vividly effected by the experience: reliving it. There is one wonderful moment when a soldier tells Hank that when in Iraq he hated it, but two weeks after getting back there is nowhere else he would rather be. The truth of this concept is reflected in most studies of what happens to soldiers after any war when they come back (one of my problems with this film is that it presumes that this is true only of Iraq: it isn't, plenty of young men were changed by World War One and Two). The film dwells on this idea though and it repeats it again and again: most evocatively in the way that Hank who knew and brought up his son, confronts the contents of his son's mobile phone, filled with videos of the torture of Iraqis and the tragedy of war.

But there is another valley of Elah here- and that is the investigation itself. Hank confronts the very issue of his son's death, the very fact of his murder and the existance of his corpse. Again the experience changes him. There is no question in my mind that Hank is deeply disturbed by his experiences, he lashes out often against those around him. But he also is humiliated by the truths that he finds out, he is blamed by his wife for his sons' deaths and he finds himself stymied at every turn by bureacracy. Ultimately the story is as much about his descent into the valley, his confrontation with the monster, the Goliath of his son's murder and what he gains from it and how he changes from it. The problem is that his gain might be negative, his change might be to the worse- the truth is hard to confront sometimes and the verdict delivered by Hank on life is not a positive one.

Its a message that sits uneasily with the film's aim which is to bring America itself to its own valley of Elah, to its own confrontation with the Goliath of what it has done in Iraq to its young men. The message is pacifist. But its also strangely a message for complacency- don't look too hard, don't confront too much because what you will find will disturb and upset and disorientate you. The film doesn't really raise sympathy for the soldiers because we know too little about them, it does create sympathy for the father but it shows the process of investigation as a futile one. It embodies exactly the nihilism that the soldiers have coming back from Iraq: in that sense this film is very much the product of its times- rather than being a post Iraq film, it is a film that is founded amidst realities shaped by Iraq. It is interesting, it is a cinematic failure, its worth seeing but it is also deeply problematic.

January 24, 2008

Biblical Curse Generator

Courtesy of Vino- I offer you the Biblical insult generator- my favourite so far is

O that thou wouldest be kicked by an incontinent camel, O thou bull of Bashan!

Take that you bulls of Bashan!

Boris in London?

One of the most interesting questions incidentally should these jubilent Tories over at Conservative Home see their wishes fulfilled, is what happens to a politician when his party are out of power who becomes London Mayor. As such he would represent more people than any other figure bar the leader in his party and possibly more than his leader. He would be a key figure in terms of any election campaign in 2009 as well. One of the most interesting things about this mayorality race is that you could easily end up either with Johnson winning (under Brown) or with Livingstone winning and then Cameron in as PM say in 2009 or 2010. I think that might have a very interesting effect on British politics. The UK has not really had politicians who have built up local profiles like US governors do since the Chamberlaines ruled Birmingham in the early twentieth and late nineteenth centuries- it would be fascinating to see how the London Mayor fits into national politics should we see a mayor from the opposition party in charge at City Hall.

It took a couple of years for the full political implications of Scottish devolution to sort their way through and we are now seeing the first SNP government up there- I don't think we will see London devolution's political effects (which could be much greater given the fact that its the major parties who contend in the capitol, not one major party against a regional party) until we see what a mayor from a party not in power does- what position he has visa vis the government and visa vis his own party. The traditional route in British politics takes you through Whitehall and Westminster- it will be fascinating to see whether there are other routes to the top that say involve becoming mayor of London and establishing a powerbase.

The Weakness of Rudi

Having hammered Danny Finkelstein recently, its nice to see him return to form with a perceptive analysis of Rudy Giuliani's campaign strategy so far. Essentially Finkelstein rightly points out that Giuliani didn't abandon the early states, he did so after they all turned dark for him. The campaign strategy to avoid them was a neat way to say that he didn't mind about bad results there- it was a press strategy in reality to stop them running stories about him not winning those early primary states. Danny rightly points out that the implication of this in a wider way is that most political strategy is pretty adhoc, it runs to the moment and its success is often reliant totally upon the moment. One week's strategical genius (Gordon Brown last summer) can look like an idiot the next week (Gordon Brown last autumn) and vice versa. However such movements do reflect a kind of reality.

What do they reflect in Giuliani's case? In my view, and I say this as a longtime sceptic about Giuliani's potential as the Republican nominee, they reflect that Giuliani is a weaker candidate than he immediatly appears. America's mayor has nice bipartisan positions and a good record of government but as soon as opponents focus on him, other disquieting things emerge. His private life has not been unimpeachable- he has links with dodgy figures in New York Politics (Bernie Kerik anyone?) and also the Catholic Church. He divorced his wife on nationwide Television without telling her first. All these things are easily transformed into quick disadvantages especially in the remorseless environment of a Presidential election. Anyone who doesn't think that Mr Giuliani is a very bright guy is an idiot, but anyone who doesn't think he is very vulnerable is also struggling. Perhaps in Iowa, New Hampshire etc you were seeing that vulnerability emerge- it will be fascinating to see how Florida goes because should he lose there that could be the end of his campaign.

Gaslight


Why is it that Gaslight doesn't work? Its a fine film featuring one of Ingrid Bergman's best performances- she plays the slowly disintegrating Paula with all her charm and considerable acting ability. Charles Boyer playing her husband is a smooth villain- a seducer, a snake in the garden with a real sting. The supporting cast are fantastic- Joseph Cotton is as always a good actor- so is Dame May Whitty reprising her dotty old woman from Hitchcock's Lady Vanishes and Angela Lansbury also does well in her first role. But it still doesn't work- it feels contrived to modern eyes- it feels like there is less suspence than their should be. George Cukor even directs it well- filling rooms with objects in order to symbolise visually the increasing paranoia of his heroine- but it still doesn't work. Something doesn't come off- and many modern reviewers have that same sense that there is something missing, something that would be better in the film which isn't there.

The first thing you might think of is that it doesn't have the pace of a modern thriller- and that's accurate. It doesn't have much pace at all- the basic storylines are fixed pretty much as soon as we land in London around a third into the movie and from there on we merely follow them. There isn't much in the way of deceptive plot twist or new angle- the story is what the story is and most of the viewers watching it can see it for what it is. But again that doesn't really answer why the film doesn't work as it should work- the plot may develop slowly but the idea of someone being convinced that their mind is slowly disintegrating is a fascinating one. The idea that that lie might convince someone, that they might be persuaded that they were mad and hence be driven out of their mind is crazy but interesting. It makes you reflect on what the nature of madness is- and to some extent it happens with various diseases like depression that someone can be driven out of their mind by persistant taunting. In this case Bergman's character is driven out of her mind by her husband and her servants who play her husband's game.

So what is it that doesn't work? Ultimately I think what doesn't work in this film is the situation. Its hard to beleive that Bergman would or could have believed that her husband's lies were true. However much we believe her acting, the premise behind it seems unbelievable. Its unbelievable because of two things- firstly because the mood of the film at the beggining and the end is romantic and not mysterious. Its hard to switch Bergman's character from what she is to what she becomes. Secondly and more importantly the mind revolts at her submissiveness. This is love on bended knee, not love of equals and as such she is in a position to be convinced of her madness. She is swept off her feet and then forced into the position of a slave. That isn't love as I understand it- its not women as I understand them. The ultimate problem with Gaslight lies in the fact that its central character is not a human being but a fairytale, a princess. Perhaps the element of fantasy at its first showings worked, hence the wide acclaim, and Bergman could portray a woman under great psychological stress and subject to deceit, as Notorious demonstrates, but this film doesn't work because the drama of its central character is implausible.

The issue here is that the genders are drawn too stereotypically for me to believe the story. Bergman's Paula is too ready to collapse into male arms and heed her husband's seductions. Boyer's husband is too much the evil cuckold. Minor characters too are too stereotypical- Cotton's detective isn't given anything to do beyond look handsome and be virtuous. The whole scenario starts as an interesting idea but because all the characters are cardboard it ends up being less than what it could be. Gaslight's failure is interesting because it demonstrates the need for completeness and complexity within cinema- the later Notorious works so much better because the characters aren't as simple and don't conform as easily to gender stereotypes. Gaslight ultimately has an interesting concept but fails because it has no psychological core- and it lacks that core because of its inability to evade the world of fairy tale and enter the world of reality.

January 23, 2008

Civility

I found this post from Craig Murray rather surprising. Murray is rightly a critic of the ideas of the Times journalist David Aaronovitch- but he has gone further and stated that Aaronovitch is a "sleazy fat neo-con slob". Murray says in his defence of those words that

David Aaronovich is confused as to why I would wish to be impolite about him. The answer is quite plain. Supporting the Iraq War, and cheerleading for it, is not a legitimate policy choice. It is complicity in an appalling act of aggression and mass murder. The invasion of another country, resulting in the death of (literally) countless civilians, in order to seize control of natural resources, was an act of hideous criminality. Nazi "Journalists" stood trial at Nuremberg charged with propagandizing for illegal war.

I tend to have rigorously argued political views. I am, for example, strongly against the private finance initiative and other private provision in the NHS. I am opposed to state aid to Northern Rock. On those and other issues, many people have other opinions and I genuinely respect those views and engage with them, much as I may disagree.

But the Iraq war is not like that. Supporting the illegal invasion of other countries is a crime; it is no more legitimate than to argue that "The Yorkshire Ripper Was Right". It does not surprise me that Aaronovitch and other renegades of the hard left like Phillips and Hitchens have taken this position - ruthlessness and disregard for individuals provide the consistent thread in their odyssey around the unpleasant extremes of politics.

I am afraid, David, that decent people will look down on you the rest of your life. Get used to it.

Murray here equates some political choices with crimes whereas he says that others are just differences of opinion. To invade Iraq is to behave like the Yorkshire ripper, to demand that the NHS be left in inefficient public ownership is to have a political opinion. Nowhere does he define exactly what he means by any of this. Indeed the standard that Mr Murray adopts seems to be whether Mr Murray cares about a particular issue or not. Being opposed to state aid to Northern Rock risks for instance causing the decent into poverty of its depositors- no doubt Mr Murray would disagree- but you could say that to advocate that is to have that on your conscience. Again if you believe that (which I don't) the NHS is more inefficient within the public sector, to oppose its privatisation is literally to sign the death sentence of those who die because we have a worse health sector.

Those who argued for the invasion of Iraq argued that it would produce democracy within Iraq and replace a particularly nasty dictator with a democratic regime. They argued that the concept of international law that Mr Murray believes in, in which the invasion of Poland was a more serious crime than the Holocaust, is overwritten by a concept based on human rights law according to which Saddam Hussein's regime was illegitimate and ripe for deposition. You may agree or disagree with their analysis or their argument- but it isn't a criminal argument or criminal analysis no more than the prudential calculation about the health service or Northern Rock is. I am not sure that there are criminal arguments in politics anyway- though if there are they would one might think have to aim at criminal ends, like the extermination of a race, rather than aim at democratic liberation. Mr Murray's argument makes no sense.

Furthermore its also bad practise. Democracy is about different groups of citizens having widely different opinions on important issues. Freedom of speech allows us all to discuss those issues and come to a view. If we are to do that, we must be at liberty to make our views known and furthermore we must take our time to evaluate and consider views before dismissing them. We also have to take the fact that we are citizens of a comunity that has others within it too seriously- so for example we need to listen and attempt to persuade others to our point of view. Insulting people doesn't help persuade them that you are right- indeed insults prove to me that you have lost an argument because you aren't considering the possibility of persuading your interlocutor. We all occasionally lose our cool- and I am sure Mr Murray has on this occasion- these remarks are not aimed at him personally and there are some arguments which seem petty and ridiculous- but he has announced a principle and I disagree with him. Civility ultimately is neccessary for democracy to survive- something that eighteenth century theorists who crafted our modern notions of politeness well knew.

Amongst the blogosphere's major problems is this tide of invective: it doesn't help either those that manufacture it or those that are the recipients of it.

January 22, 2008

Plague

Plague is one of those diseases that most of us relegate to the history books. Great outbursts of plague have had a dramatic impact upon history. Athens in the Peloponesian war was heavily blasted by plague, medieval Europe suffered greatly from the disease as did 19th Century China. The disease is largely transmitted by fleas living on rodents- rats it is presumed in medieval Europe- and proceeds to infect human beings afterwards. Human to human transmission is possible but the key catalyst for an outbreak appears to be the presence of rodents in large enough quantities. Plague no longer severely threatens developed world countries and in the world at the moment there are only an estimated 1-5,000 cases per year over the last twenty years. Africa seems to be the main locus of plague cases with 90% of the cases in the last five years coming in Madagascar, Tanzania, Mozambique, Malawi, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Plague outbreaks though can have a dramatic effect on a country- in India in 1994 an outbreak killed 50 people in the city of Surat, an event which led to a nationwide collapse of trade and tourism and the loss of an estimated 600 million dollars to the Indian economy. Hence a recent study in the Public Library of Science's Medicine Journal calls for more attention to be paid to the disease and to methods of treating it- and also to studies of whether the disease may be able to evolve into new forms in order to further threaten humanity.

I don't consider myself as having the medical expertise to comment upon the development of plague as a disease- no doubt others are in a better position. But one thing that is interesting does arise I think from this analysis and that is that economic development tends to present new opportunities for the aspiring virus and to erradicate disease. It presents new opportunities because increased trade leads to increased human contact and hence the risk of infection. Nigerian truck drivers spread aids to South African prostitutes. It tends to erradicate diseases because it presents us with options to control and contain the disease in locations or by advancing cleanliness and healthiness amongst the general population. Successful public education campaigns in the US and Europe helped eliminate Aids through encouraging condom use for example. Furthermore a well developed health service can lead to diseases being spotted earlier and therefore dealt with more quickly. I wonder and this is just a thought that others can comment on, whether there are particular states of society in which epidemics are more likely to hit than not. Obviously in the events after the breakdown of sophisticated societies during wars- like say the influenza epidemic of 1918- we should expect massive dislocation and possible medical disasters. But are there other moments- for instance at the birth of capitalism where the structures of trade have evolved faster than the wider society- when we should look for epidemics. I wonder if anyone has plotted this data- if they have it would be fascinating.

The studies on plague are interesting and worth thinking about- the disease may not be a historical footnote.

I should say I've written a further post about plague and climate change over at the Liberal Conspiracy.

January 21, 2008

Advisors

Could I reccomend this Bloggingheads dialogue- Megan McCardle examines the economic advisors to the Presidential candidates, Spencer Akerman the national security advisors- its well worth listening too- particularly when it comes to the differences economically between Hillary and Obama.

Police Pay

I must confess to a personal quirck here- I am fascinated by how you effectively tie pay to performance in the public sector. The Institute of Public Policy Research this morning has announced that in February it will publish a report covering police pay, unfortunately as we do not have the report itself but only an executive summary on the website of the Institute there isn't much we can say. However the reccomendations on that website- which one assumes will be central to the report raise serious questions about its contents. The central reccomendations, reported this morning by the BBC, concern the introduction of performance related pay into the police service. The IPPR point out that the rates of crime detection per officer in the UK have hardly moved since 1997 despite huge increases in pay for officers and that furthermore pay within the force does not reward performance but rewards seniority. They want to shift the balance of pay to reflect performance and to get officers to train more effectively.

All of that is laudable as an aim but there are some serious questions about it that deserve to be raised. Firstly there is the obvious structure and predictability of performance related pay- how it fluctuates for individual officers year on year. No doubt the IPPR would be keen to argue that it should not fluctuate too much- uncertainty of pay award is just the kind of thing to drive talented and therefore useful people away from the police force just at the moment when we most need them. But the real issue is a second one. The problem with performance related pay is never the concept but the metric. Its the way that you measure performance. A classic case can be seen in the IPPR's own research. They argue that police performance should on their website be measured in terms of arrests per officer- but of course there are other ways of measuring police performance. As advocates of the 'bobby on the beat' will often tell you the provision of a sense of security to the public is another measure of police performance for example. The idea of performance related pay risks skewing the performance of police to reflect one or two or three different metrics. The IPPR imply that performance's definition will be decided locally- in which case one has to ask why they use a central figure of police arrests to demonstrate failure and in which case one has to ask furthermore are they willing to see the price of localisation (local failure) to be paid.

None of this is to say that their report is neccessarily wrong- we can't, its not out yet (and quite what the IPPR are doing in releasing to the press a report that hasn't been published, getting publicity for the argument before they get criticism for the research I'm not sure) but it will be interesting to see how the institute has managed to square some of these circles. In particular it will be interesting to see how they manage to derive a concept of performance that doesn't warp the performance of police away from things that we want policement to do. In general within the public sector- the problem is also there with teachers and doctors- there are two great problems. One is that pay doesn't advance much until you move into management and therefore out of the job in the field which if you are talented is the place you are most needed in, and the other is to do with how you measure performance. Just asking for performance related pay is the easy bit, working out how it works is the hard bit. It will be interesting to see what the institute thinks about that!

January 20, 2008

Obama and Political Correctness

Barack Obama's speech to the congregation of a church in Atlanta provided in full by Andrew Sullivan here are very inspiring. He says in that speech something that is very important to say- that the basis for the way that we treat other people lies in empathising with them, in creating community with them. One of the most illustrative and interesting examples he draws upon in the speech is right at the end, in describing a campaign meeting, he describes how one of his workers Ashley got everyone who joined the campaign to sit down and describe why they were there.

And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that’s when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.

She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too.

So Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they’re supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he’s there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, “I am here because of Ashley.”


That speech explains why Obama is a viable candidate but it also explains exactly what politics ought to be based on- the sense that it isn't my greivance that matters but yours. Politics can often and does often become a matter of shouting insults at each other- trading blows. Indeed when for instance politicians ramble on about the threat from x social group- often what they are doing is encouraging the rest of us to join the mob and start throwing blows- you can see it in discussions of immigration particularly. Obama's principle is more interesting and more important- because it encourages in us a truly moral ideal of politics, not morality in terms of codification of a set of principles for others to follow, but morality in terms of an outward looking benificence.

This struck me today as I read Jonah Goldberg's recent comments on political correctness. Goldberg rebukes both conservatives and liberals when it comes to political correctness- and made the crucial point in an earlier article that

The reality is that much of political correctness — the successful part — is a necessary attempt to redefine good manners in a sexually and racially integrated society.

Goldberg is entirely right. The problem for conservatives on the issue is that they are paranoid about the Orwellian dimensions of political correctness- and that they become interested in their ability to be rude to others. For liberals its the other way round, attempting to catch others out in conversation is the classic nit picking academic parlour game (you see a different specimen of the same thing on blogs when people take others up for their spelling and typos.) History afterall has nothing to do with the male possessive noun- but refers to the Greek word for story historia and when academic idiots start writing about herstory all you observe is their ignorance! The point is that political correctness ought to be something that we do voluntarily in order to make others feel comfortable- its a code of politeness, intended as the original codes of politeness were partly for political reasons to bind society together and partly for purely social reasons, to make civilised conversation possible.

It is a real sign of hope that two such individuals as far away from each other as Obama and Goldberg though get this central point- that a key part of politics is other regarding action. And that whether its a call to moral rearmanent based on charitable impulse or a call for good manners and political correctness, the point is that that political society is based upon empathy and the more we think about that, the better.