I suddenly realised that it has been a number of years since I last wrote something about my favourite podcasts. Unlike previous years where I’ve given a complete assessment of all the different podcasts I listen to, I’ll limit myself to two relatively recent discoveries:
Novara FM started out as a regular radio show on London’s Resonance FM. Usually an hour long, the show basically involves a bunch of radical leftists discussing the issues of the day. Usually hosted by Aaron Bastani and James Butler, the show somehow manages to find the sweet spot between Marxism 101 and the deluge of jargon that academic leftism can so often become. A lot of Novara’s charm is down to the communication skills of its two primary presenters: Bastani is confrontational, intuitive and loves boiling complex issues down to amusingly polemical soundbites while Butler is more expansive, careful and alive to nuance. I have often found myself in the position of having encountered an idea and reached a conclusion only to completely reverse my position based on the analyses presented on this podcast. Particular favourites include:
- Worker Struggle in Asia and the Future of Capitalism
- Gentrification, Displacement, Community
- What is Neoliberalism?
You Must Remember This is the brainchild of one-time LA Weekly film critic Karina Longworth. The best way of describing this series would be to think of it as a storytelling podcast similar to Sarah Koenig’s Serial except that it deals with the scurrilous history of Hollywood. Closer to Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls than Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, the show explores the private lives of 20th Century Hollywood with an eye to how those lives intersected with the industry. The current series is taking a long hard look at Charles Manson, his Family, his crimes and how 1960s Hollywood allowed a murderous cult leader to get so close to them. While the current series was clearly inspired by Jeff Guin’s brilliant biography Manson, Longworth approaches her subject with a feminist slant that really sheds new light on old Hollywood legend. As brilliant as Charlie Manson’s Hollywood may be, it is also worth checking out earlier episodes including:
- The one on Walt Disney
- The One, Two part episode about Mia Farrow
- The one about why John Wayne didn’t join up during World War II
FilmJuice have my review of Billy Wilder’s misleading P.O.W. comedy Stalag 17. I say “misleading” as while the film was initially marketed as a tribute to America’s brave prisoners of war, the film’s depiction of life in a World War II prison camp is actually far from flattering.
Originally a hugely-successful Broadway play, Stalag 17 revolves around a group of American POWs who are trying to escape the camp. Using all of their initiative and sneakiness, the men dig tunnels, fashion civilian clothes and scout for weaknesses in German security only to wind up delivering their escapees into the waiting arms of German machine-gun fire. Shocked but reticent to engage in any form of concerted self-criticism, the group’s frustrations wind up being unleashed on William Holden’s Sefton, a cynical individualist who would rather profit from the group’s desires than aid in their fulfilment. What makes this film “misleading” is the fact that, rather than conforming to genre expectations and producing a film all about a bunch of POWs coming together to outwit the Germans, Wilder has produced a film that portrays American POWs as boorish, overbearing idiots. In fact, Sefton’s rugged individualist is quite obviously intended to be the film’s point-of-view character:
Stalag 17 is not exactly the easiest film to get into. In fact, the film is almost completely unwatchable for most of its opening hour. The problem is that the film ostensibly plays lip service to the idea of the Good War by presenting many of the POWs as happy-go-lucky scamps. Stalag 17 is often described as an iconic film as it was one of the first films about the Second World War to present the Germans as figures of fun rather than menace. Just as this vision of the Nazis as effeminate, strutting nincompoops would later inform British comedies like ‘Allo ‘Allo, the idea that prisoners of war could pull off elaborate schemes under the noses of their German captors would later inspire 168 episodes of the American sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. What makes the film very nearly unwatchable is the fact that virtually all of its jokes are embarrassingly unfunny: First we have the incessant torrent of anti-German comments that are really little more than crude xenophobic sniping dressed up as banter. Then we have about a dozen different jokes involving an over-weight man falling over and finally we have a scene in which hundreds of well-fed American POWs scream and gesture lewdly at a bunch of terrified female prisoners. This type of humour might well have passed muster amidst the jingoism and sexism of 1950s America but it actually makes the POWs come across as a bunch of boorish idiots… and therein lays the point.
My review places Stalag 17 in the broader context of Wilder’s career and his tendency to view American society in very cynical terms but it also occurs to me that films like Stalag 17 could very well mark the point at which war-time solidarity left the American cultural bloodstream, taking any and all faith in collective action with it. Sefton’s rugged individualism provides the film with its moral centre precisely because America was entering an age where it became the individual’s moral duty to look to their own advancement whilst questioning any and all conceptions of the public good that were not grounded in material largesse.
Now this is a bit more fucking like it! “Give” and “Such Fun” have their moments but both stories rely rather too heavily on grand reveals to do their work. The grand reveal that forces one to re-evaluate the entire story is a very heavy-handed technique and I think that Salter’s stories work better when his touch is lighter and readers are left to come to their own conclusions. I don’t know whether I am getting better at deciphering Salter but “Platinum” felt completely transparent to me… I read it once and then read it again but I was never left scratching my head in the way I did with those earlier stories. Despite being quite accessible, “Platinum” contains some of my favourite writing in the collection to date.
The story opens with a description of a magnificent apartment overlooking Central Park. The apartment was bought for a small fortune a number of years ago and now it is almost the almost priceless home of a true patriarch, a man who has made a fortune helping the poor and the innocent only to them spend that money making life better for the people around him:
He was a figure of decency and honor, like the old men described by Cicero who planted orchards they would not live to see fruit from, but did it out of a sense of responsibility and respect for the gods, he had a desire to bequeath the best of what was known to his descendants.
This pillar of the community is married to a woman who is intelligent, has no interest in cooking but for whom grace, generosity and good manners are as natural as breathing. When she first met the patriarch Brule’s children she seduced them with a promise of unquestioning love and loyalty:
— Look, she had said to his daughters when she and Brule were married, I’m not your mother and I never can be, but I hope that we’ll be friends. If we are, good, and if not, you can count on me for anything.
Reading this, I am reminded of how consistently brilliant Salter is with this type of emotional engineering. These are good people, they do good things and you cannot help but fall in love with them and their little eccentricities; Brule’s insistence upon walking to work, Pascale’s refusal to cook on the grounds that she cannot talk at the same time. This is a family you desperately want to belong to… how could you not? And if that line about being able to count on Pascale for anything weren’t enough, check this out:
You belonged to the family, not as someone who happened to be married to a daughter, but entirely. You were one of them, one for all and all for one. The oldest daughter, Grace, had told her husband,
— You have to really get used to the plural of things now.
“The plural of things”… The remedy to fear, isolation and existential loneliness condensed down to four words and delivered with all the lethal accuracy of a shot to the head. This is not a family that demands loyalty or makes you work for its trust… it simply takes your ‘I’ and turns it into ‘We’.
I sometimes think that my generation got the wrong end of the stick when it came to the question of conformity. My first encounter with conformity as a theoretical concept came in my early teens when some pre-cursor to GCSE psychology mentioned Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments in which a subject was confronted with a room full of people giving the wrong answer to a simple perception test. Supposedly overwhelmed by peer pressure, over a third of Asch’s subjects chose to follow the group and give the wrong answer.
I say “supposedly” as while a lot has since been written about Asch’s experiments, most of it has been reductive, simplistic and wrong. The problem lies not in the work itself but rather in the tendency to package it up with Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment as part of a broad cultural narrative about the hazards of conformity.
By the time I was first encountering experimental psychology in the early 1990s, conformity was being presented as a Bad, Bad Thing that caused you to speak untruths, torture people to death and generally behave like a German prison camp guard. Indeed, a lot of the research into obedience and conformity that took place in the middle decades of the 20th Century is best understood as trying to understand the rise of Nazi Germany and thereby prevent it from ever happening again. The work of Asch, Milgram and Zimbardo may have been lousy and misunderstood science but it was great propaganda as it sold us a vision of humanity as a species wired for obedience and moral cowardice.
People have been making spy film parodies for almost as long as they have been making spy films. As early as 1951, Paramount cast Bob Hope in My Favourite Spy as both a sophisticated international spy and the bumbling stand-up comedian who happened to resemble him. Right from the start, this cinematic formula proved so incredibly successful that it began to have an influence on the source material and so many conventional spy films and TV series of the 1960s went out of their way to incorporate the kinds of sight gags and deconstructive energies that had once been used to mock the genre from the outside. Indeed, the only tangible difference between The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart is that Don Adams seemed to realise that his character was a self-important fool while Robert Vaughn did not. By the 1980s, the conventional spy film was so far beyond parody that Roger Moore was allowed to turn James Bond into the straight middle-aged equivalent of high camp while films such as Spies Like Us and True Lies functioned as both conventional action films and satirical comedies without even a trace of tonal dissonance.
The public’s growing inability to tell the difference between films about spies and films taking the piss out of spies also served to deprive espionage satires of their political edge. Despite realising that it was impossible to satirise a genre that had progressed beyond parody some twenty-five years previously, many filmmakers went down the path of producing broader and broader satires of a genre that no longer existed as anything other than a comic punching bag for hacks like Mike Myers or the Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer partnership that would eventually wind up creating such cinematic monstrosities as Scary Movie and Meet the Spartans.
Though it is hard to think of a more degraded cinematic genre, the spy movie parody has nonetheless managed to produce a number of truly classic and devastatingly pointed films: Often imitated but rarely understood, Yves Robert’s The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe depicts the intelligence services as a bunch of self-important and unaccountable bureaucrats who spend all their time chasing their own tails in an effort to commandeer more power and funding from a political class that lacks the courage to recognise their pointlessness. Equally brutal is Michel Hazanavicius’ OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, which depicts the French secret service as a bunch of racist thugs who use the trappings of state power to legitimise a playboy lifestyle that takes them from one sun-drenched swimming pool to another as women and members of marginalised groups look on in anger and disgust. Though Paul Feig’s Spy does not approach the savagery of either of these two films, it is an action/comedy that does action very well and a comedy with real satirical bite. Ostensibly a satire of Bourne-era spy films, Spy is best understood as an exploration of the Halo Effect and the idea that physically attractive people are anything other than a bunch of incompetent narcissists benefiting from society’s libidinous good will.
A story that gave me little joy and left behind it only impertinent questions: – When was this story written relative to the others in the book? Just as composers will often re-use musical phrases and directors can often be found re-using particular motifs, “Give” is a story that seems to draw on images and themes that are also present in the other stories. Is this story’s lusty poet a dry run for that of “My Lord You” or did that image stick so firmly in Salter’s mind that he could not help but return to it? – Does Salter work better at certain lengths than others? The more space he affords himself, the more elegantly he describes to space around his moods and characters. “Give” is nearly the shortest story in the collection and while it does manage to gain some traction, the emotions and images it shuffles around are more simplistic than they are in other stories. Much like “Such Fun”, “Give” is a story with a distracting twist in the tale. I say “distracting” as the drama arising from the male narrator’s affair with another man is most definitely not the point of the story. This is not a story about lost love or a marriage strained by infidelity, it is a story about a world woven from lies and enforced with all the passive-aggression that the middle-classes can muster. Read more…