Passive Incoherence and How to #Occupy The Moral Highground

We are the products of the long, drawn-out process known as evolution by means of natural selection. Regardless of whether or not you buy into the memes and methods of evolutionary psychology, there is no point in denying that we stand forever on the cusp of the future, shaped by the depths of the past. One troublesome product of our evolutionary history is the desire to see the world as a binary opposition between the goodies and the baddies. From an evolutionary standpoint, this kind of reductionism makes perfect sense as our lives once depended upon the capacity to instantly distinguish between friend and foe.

As educated adults, we know that such reductions are simplistic fantasies. We know that the real colour of the world is not black or white but an ugly beige, a vast moral greyness tainted by the blood red of guilt and atrocity. We know these things and yet we still hanker after certainty and when our mind cannot find certainty in the world, it cuts corners by blinding us to the moral shortcomings of our allies and the unexpected nobility of our opponents. The world is a complex place and we can only make sense of it by choosing a line of best fit and sticking to it come what may.

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DC: The New Frontier… Stripp’d

Boomtron have my latest comics column on Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier.

New Frontier is an ‘elseworld’ that takes the superheroes of the DC Comics Universe and transposes them into the late 1940s in much the same way as Neil Gaiman transposed the Marvel Universe into Elizabethan England in 1602 (2003). However, while 1602 is really nothing more than an extended exercise in fan service that wanders around Elizabethan London going “Oooh… I wonder what Daredevil would look like if he was an Irish bard!”, DC: The New Frontier is an attempt to liberate mainstream superhero comics from the cynicism of the post-Watchmen era by finding a way of reconciling psychological depth with the values of old-fashioned Gold and Silver Age heroism. While I do not think that Cooke is ultimately successful in his endeavour, I do think that the result is one of the most fascination mainstream superhero comics ever produced.  It is fascinating because it is a comic that clearly realises the challenge that faces large generation-spanning mythological systems.  As I pointed out in my review of Dick Maas’ horror film Saint (2010), myths must reinvent themselves in order to stay alive and DC: The New Frontier is clearly designed as a mutation that might help superhero comics adapt to the culture of today:

The last thirty years has seen a drive to re-invent traditional heroes as darker and more realistic figures. Moore’s reinvention of the superhero as a vigilante mired in psychological trauma and political compromise is no different to the re-invention of King Arthur as a Roman Centurion or an Iron-age Chieftain. The world has changed and though we can no longer believe in a campy middle-aged Batman, we can believe in a tortured psychopath who acts upon his own flawed sense of justice. Humans have always and will always yearn for escape from the prison of their lives but the vehicle they choose for that escape is determined by the nature of the lives they are escaping. Because of this, stories must be retold and heroes must be reborn. Even modern day myths are subject to these evolutionary pressures, in order to survive stories must change to suit the demands of their audience.

Despite its failures, DC: The New Frontier is still a fascinating read and a great place to start if you are looking to get a handle on the tendency of superhero comics to keep re-launching and re-inventing themselves.

REVIEW – The Ides of March (2011)

FilmJuice have my review of George Clooney’s much-hyped political thriller The Ides of March starring Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti.

As my review suggests, this is an entirely decent piece of filmmaking.  The story is a fundamentally interesting one, the direction is competent, the performances are entrancing and the whole thing looks and feels very much like an episode of The West Wing featuring some of the best thought-of actors in modern-day Hollywood. The problem is that, while The Ides of March is entirely decent, it is not particular exciting. Indeed, when I say that it looks and feels like an episode of The West Wing, I mean exactly that and while I liked The West Wing quite a bit at the time, I do think that a serious political film has to do a little bit more than ape a decade-old TV programme:

Whether on a visual or narrative level, Clooney and co-screenwriter Grant Heslov really do not show us anything that we have not seen before. The tale of idealism crushed beneath the boots of political expediency is an old political saw and while the themes of fear and loyalty are interesting, Clooney’s direction fails to elevate them above the level of a subtle motif. Perhaps if Clooney had been less plodding in his direction and the film’s accusation had been more concrete and impassioned then Ides of March might have been a truly memorable piece of political filmmaking. Instead, Clooney’s latest is nothing more than an entertaining and competently directed romp featuring great performances from some of Hollywood’s most potent (and promising) acting talents.  Some Friday nights, that is more than enough.

I didn’t dislike the film and I would warmly recommend it to West Wing fans but no film this derivative should have this amount of buzz surrounding it.  That’s all I’m saying…

REVIEW – The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011)

FilmJuice have my review of Goran Olsson’s archival documentary The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975.

Back in the 60s, a group of Swedish journalists traveled to California in the hopes of understanding the American mindset. Once there, the filmmakers slowly found themselves gravitating away from ‘mainstream’ America and towards the burgeoning Black Power movement centered upon the Black Panther party. Nothing much was done with this footage at the time and so it sat in a vault for several decades until researchers uncovered it and turned it into a film. At its best, Black Power Mixtape is shining a fascinating and historically important light on a radical political movement whose reputation has long been unfairly tarnished. Unfortunately, once the film moves beyond the footage of the Black Panthers, the problems start to stack up:

Sadly, once the Black Power Mixtape shifts its emphasis from the Black Panthers to the Nation of Islam and the War on Drugs, the documentary begins to lose both its precision and its power.  An interview with Louis Farrakhan is eerie in its fantastical delusions and the documentary’s uncritical attitude towards the idea that the Nation of Islam offers a disciplined lifestyle heralds the arrival of a number of bizarre conspiracy theories including the somewhat inconsistent view that the authorities both turned a blind-eye to the drug trade in Black areas and cracked down on the drug trade in Black areas in a way that damaged the community and undermined the pursuit of civil rights.

Equally unconvincing are the documentary’s attempts to articulate the Swedish perspective on the civil rights movement.  While the amusing footage of Swedish tourists travelling round Harlem in a bus suggests that there is something vaguely inauthentic about Swedish concern for American civil rights, the documentary never manages to articulate what it is that is particularly Swedish about any of the footage or the interviews. Frankly, these could have come from the vaults of any European television station.

There’s no denying that this is an important film and I can completely understand why Sight and Sound magazine made it their film of the month. However, in an effort to expand the film to feature length and widen the scope of its observations, the film puts out a number of thematic feelers (war on drugs, Swedish opinions of 60s America) that not only fail to pay off but actually muddy the waters sufficiently that they distract from the power and importance of the film’s opening third.

Robinson in Ruins (2010) – Mould on a Dystopian Corpse

Back in the 1990s, the filmmaker and architectural scholar Patrick Keiller made a pair of films about Britain. As much video essays as they were documentary films, London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997) were concerted attempts to find the true spirit of Britain that had been buried by a decade and a half of Thatcherite rule.  Sensing that the wheels were coming off the Tory juggernaut and that a fresh start would soon be required, Keiller used the eccentric academic Robinson and a wryly-comic unnamed narrator to sift the wreckage in search of gold.  Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Keiller’s intrepid explorers, the project was a political failure: Britain, much like its capital city, was a place devoid of any truth that could not be measured in pounds, euros, dollars or units of industrial measurement.  London and Robinson in Space are films about the defeat of the romantic spirit and the absolute victory of neoliberalism.

Over a decade later, Keiller returns with Robinson in Ruins, an unexpected addendum to the Robinson duology.  With the narrator dead and Robinson gone, the narration has fallen to an equally unnamed female public sector worker (voiced by Vanessa Redgrave) who discovers Robinson’s footage and notes in an old caravan on a site destined for re-development. Made at the height of the credit crunch, when the towers of Capitalism tottered and nearly fell, Robinson in Ruins is far less pessimistic than either London or Robinson in Space.  Eerily apocalyptic and as visually arresting as all of Keiller’s work, Robinson in Ruins suggests that humanity’s salvation may lie in communion with non-human intelligences.

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REVIEW – Night and Fog (1955)

Videovista have my review of Alain Resnais’ sublime holocaust documentary Nuit et Brouillard.

Reminiscent in both its imagery and intent to Billy Wilder’s post-War propaganda film Death Mills (1945), Night and Fog is only 32-minutes long but each and every one of those 32 minutes packs a hefty punch.  Not content with directly addressing the somewhat thorny issue of France’s involvement in the deportation of Jews, Resnais attempts to universalise the cultural significance of the Holocaust in a number of ways.  Firstly, (like many films) he suggests that Jewish people do not in any sense own the Holocaust and that the stain of the atrocity marks each and every one of us.  Secondly, (somewhat more controversially) he suggests that many of the people inside the camps were far from innocent victims:

Between this and his continued insistence upon ‘denunciations’ and ‘thievery’, Resnais suggests that concentration camp inmates were far from blameless in the construction of some of the worst living conditions imaginable to man. While the film in no way lets the Nazis off the hook, it does suggest that the capacity for inhuman violence is present in all of us and that all the Nazis really did was create an environment in which man’s inhumanity to man could express itself fully. So detailed is Resnais’ accounting of social dynamics that one could almost watch Night And Fog as a sort of time and motion study. Given the film’s almost academic tone, the horrific imagery serves as a means of grounding the film and of reminding us what it is that we are discussing.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, this review touches on many of the same issues as my recent review of Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s disappointing Sarah’s Key (2010), which is out this weekend.

The Hunter (2010) – America Unter Alles

Every morning, when I turn on the radio and hear of yet another wave of revolutionary uprisings or demonstrations in the Middle East and North Africa, I invariably think that such events are long overdue. But what causes a popular uprising? What makes such a thing overdue?

In the West, we have an ageing and apathetic population ruled over by a largely corrupt political class who have little or no interest in rocking the boat. However, though archly conservative and hugely selfish, the mindset of the political classes broadly mirrors the attitudes of the ageing population they claim to represent and so, despite the odd march and protest, a revolution is not likely to take place any time soon. However, in the Arab World, the picture is startlingly different.

In the Middle East and North Africa, a similarly corrupt, conservative and selfish political class is currently in power. However, unlike the West, the population of the Arab World is not conservative and apathetic but young, vibrant and idealistic. For a while now, the older political class has managed to keep the young in line by making lavish promises and allowing them to blow off steam by whipping up anti-US and anti-Israeli sentiment (despite their vocal outrage, Israeli atrocities have been a political godsend to the autocracies of the Arab world). When these fail to work, the ageing political classes use Western weapons and truncheons to put down the protestors while screaming about ‘foreign influence’. However, as the news reveals to us every morning, this tactic is rapidly starting to fail and the youth of the Arab World are starting to demand representation in the political classes of the countries they inhabit.

What makes this wave of uprisings feel overdue is the fact that they are largely the product of demographic weight.  The political algebra is quite clear:

Insufficient social and political mobility + high birth rate = revolution

But where does the truth of this equation come from? Where do revolutions start? Iranian director Rafi Pitts’ The Hunter suggests that, while revolutions begin with unhappy people, they seldom end that way as political issues have a tendency to outlive the people who first draw attention to them.

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