Return of Flight Of The Conchords(!)

•December 30, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Yeah! The Conchords are back! In all honesty, I’m not sure what to expect. I found it all really ha-ha-hee-hee on the radio, and I did enjoy the transfer to TV – though after a while, it felt all very … expected. The difficulty with comedy is, if you want to prop it up over a sustained period of time without it seeming stale, you either need some very good writing to inject some layers into the comedy, or you need some complexity to the characters (maybe even some character development). Unfortunately, Flight of the Conchords has been high on quirky charm and sticking with a winning (if predictable) joke. I’d love for this to be a great series, but to be so, I think they’ll really need to pull something new out of the bag.

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Politics and the writer

•December 30, 2008 • Leave a Comment

In the Sunday Times (28th December), Minette Marrin recently argued that ‘the gift for articulating foreign words and phrases – and, indeed, one’s own – is a specific kind of cognitive aptitude that may have little to do with logic, argument or judgment’. Needless to say, this observation came in a piece particularly noteworthy for its expression of an argument, the logical reasoning of which was…

Well, let’s skip that bit and just leap to the crux. Festive spirit and all that. You see, the central point of the article was the contention that there exists ‘an odd natural law of literature: creative writers are often silly political commentators.’ “Well,” you are no doubt asking yourself, “what’s so odd about that?” And well may we wonder, in a world in which all sorts of professions have often produced particularly dodgy political commentators. Rock Against Racism was started precisely because of the attempts by some leading musicians to weigh in with some very questionable political analysis. But since it is just writers with whom Marrin’s article is concerned, Sartre is invoked, only to be dismissed on the grounds of ‘ludicrous’ politics. Were the same logic to be applied even-handedly across society, we would probably find half of our politicians silenced, starting at the far right and moving progressively inwards to the very party that, through fear of witnessing a fundamentalist attack on our democratic liberties, decided to start dismantling them itself.

Of course, it is important to accord Marrin’s piece due respect – as a writer, she is uniquely qualified to comment – and to keep things in perspective; it is, after all, just a throwaway piece of humorous comment. Well, yes…but still, there is something about the central argument with which I find myself in disagreement. Two things, actually. First, the difficulty with excluding literary talents from expressing political views is that it’s the thin end of the wedge. Where would it all end? Taken to its logical conclusion, it would mean that the only people left to comment on politics would be professional politicians themselves. By that stage we’d be in a dictatorship. One only has to listen to some of our politicians to see that writers aren’t the only people to express eccentric political views. It seems very New Labour to feel that politicians should be left to do all the thinking for us, and then to lend cultural expression to our thoughts for us as well. But good heavens, just think of the mess we’d be left in! It would be akin to living in a fascist, Stalinist, or Islamist regime with scope or space for individual expression or dissent at all. The great thing about living in a democracy is precisely that, ludicrous or not, even writers’ views can find their expression.

To have anything other than this would deprive us of the inestimable pleasures of seeing politicians sent up in writing, something that makes even the most dull of political issues at least entertaining. For example, take these three figures: Aleister Crowley; Benito Mussolini; Leonardo Sciascia. Individually they are possibly the three least interesting figures in world history. But combine them and you end up with Sciascia’s short ‘Apocryphal Correspondence re Crowley’; not the greatest piece of writing but more effective than any journalism in showing the absurdity of Satanism and Fascism, despite the earnestness with which their adherents are wont to take themselves.

In fact, literature has always been far more politically charged and relevant that Marrin’s piece acknowledges. I challenge anybody to read Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay ‘Women and fiction’ (published in The Forum) and conclude otherwise. It is just that here in the UK, we are often far less open about acknowledging politics than our European cousins are. The Sunday Time piece could have equally considered any of a range of other European writers: from the terminally out-of-fashion such as Carlo Levi to the periodically trendy (Calvino; Umberto Eco), the pleasantly obscure (Dacia Maraini), and the almost-in vogue (Antonio Pennacchi’s My Brother is an Only Child, of course deals with political themes). Each of these writers has expressed political views, or explored political themes – and so what? There are plenty of examples from the US, too – playwrights such as Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill explored some inescapably political questions about modern capitalism, while Joe Klein’s novel Primary Colors is only too well known to us all. And what of the writings of Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, or Alice Walker? Do these not deal with political themes?

The second difficulty I have with Marrin’s Sunday Times piece is that it tends to fix writers’ political views in quite reductionist and manichean terms (sane, presumably, versus ‘dotty’, ‘ludicrous’, ‘silly’, ‘nasty’…). While many of the specific points Marrin makes about particular views as justifiable as the views of those she excoriates , political opinions are often notoriously more complex and nebulous than popular crude characterisations allow for, as the lives of writers like Ignazio Silone and Solzhenitsyn – or, equally, Harold Pinter –  show. So while there’s nothing wrong with critiquing the views of Pinter, reading this in monolithic terms and deducing from it a general rule about the folly of writers’ political agency must be far from convincing. From The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist to the works of Primo Levi or even Doris Lessing, writers have added much to culture simply by being unafraid to deal with the reality that they write in a political context, and adress political themes. More importantly, it enriches our secular democracy to recognize what these political expressions have achieved.

Thoughts on festive TV: Lumley in the Land of the Northern Lights; Eastenders; Ray Mears; Hitchcock; Eastenders

•December 29, 2008 • 1 Comment

The thing about a nasty dose of tonsillitis over the festive period is that it leaves you with time on your hands but little by way of concentration, so reading and sensible writing are eschewed in favour of television. Now, with the proliferation of improbably-named satellite channels showing innumerable films about a bandit named Django – presumably he keeps his weapons in a guitar case – this might not be such a good thing. Still, the credit crunch promised an end to the hitherto inexhaustible vein of charmless homilies to property investment. Or so I thought, until I caught a programme about buying houses in the countryside this morning. It is a curious thing that, just when they are most needed, Welsh nationalists are nowhere to be found.

If this year’s festive television programming has been uninspired, the soaps that clutter the schedule have a great deal to do with it. The other day I caught some of Eastenders for the first time in a couple of years. All the faces of familiar Walford villains turned my TV set into a proper rogues’ gallery. Each year the production team must draw names out of a hat to decide which departed character should be brought back for Christmas. First they have to rule out those who have died gruesomely in previous festive seasons. So Nick Cotton has pitched up, and like the smell from a putrid mackerel there’s no getting rid. That surely spells trouble. Ditto Janine Butcher. Ditto Ian Beale playing the nice guy. Oh, where will it all end? There’s bound to be a palaver, and a corpse, before the week is out.

It seems ironic that, with originality in such short supply amid the new scripts, it fell to the repeats to spread some small-screen joy. By way of penance for inflicting The 39 Steps on us yesterday, the Beeb treated us to some real gems today. First was Hitch; Notorious (1946) was a real treat. It brought us Claude Rains: part Columbo, part Richie Benaud, and part Sarkozy, you just know he will be a tricky blighter to deal with. Though not as formidable as his mother, a cantakerous old thing with the counenance of a wildebeest suffering from a bad case of shingles. Her son has married a woman in the pay of the US secret service, and this might not go down so well with his Nazi co-conspirators, so she tells him bluntly: “You are protected by the enormity of your stupidity…for a while”. Ooh the timing of that delivery! But dear old Cary Grant – Devlin, in the sort of dark, edgy performance only Hitch could get from Grant – is the real fool, abandoning Ingrid Bergman to be poisoned in a plot dreamt up by the peevish old ungulate coldly, so coldly (“She must go, but it must happen slowly. If she could become ill, and stay ill for a while, then…”). They slip something nasty into her coffee. Perhaps it was Coffee Mate, but who knows? Bergman’s performance as a poisoned heroine bore more than passing similarity to the sufferings of an acute tonsil case, and you have this on good authority. It only remained for Grant to ease his way around the door as only Cary Grant can, and whisk her away, bringing to an end a concatenation of betrayals that suffuse the film with suspense, and resolving the electric tensions between Grant and Bergman.

With all that settled, it was time for something more educational. Only a week ago I thought Sami was a Moroccan waiter who married someone in Coronation Street. Now I know better, having been spoilt for the full gen on the Sami people, first by Ray Mears on the dreadfully-named and peculiarly unappealing Dave channel (27th December), and tonight by Joanna Lumley (Joanna Lumley in the Land of the Northern Lights). Mears’ programme was all knife-making and zeal for essentialised authenticity and trapped fish flapping themselves to death in the snow. By the end I felt I quite understood what R.S. Thomas had meant when he wrote: ‘I was in prison / Until you came; your voice was a key / Turning in the enormous lock / Of hopelessness. Did the door open / To let me out or yourselves in?’

With not a knife or a museum of the living in sight, Lumley’s was, in contrast, a lovely and uplifting quest to find the northern lights, stopping to show us something of Sami people in three dimensions along the way. There is no explorer more endearing than the one willing to wander around at sixteen degrees below freezing only to admit that she might be a little mad before taking you to the world’s most northerly kebab van. Now there’s an explorer to have around in a tight spot; had only Shackleton possessed the nouse of this woman on his trip south, he would never have had to eat the huskies. No such fate befell those that dragged Lumley’s sled north into the Arctic Circle, and one could be forgiven for gaining the impression that she actually felt rather rotten for having so imposed on them. Well, this is the fake-fur wearing vegetarian Lumley, the explorer whose concern for local etiquettes towards the northern lights had her doing a spot of impromtu soul-searching: “have I displeased the tricky lady?”

She met a Sami community in Kautokeino, where people have the latest mod cons and everyone lives semi-nomadically. Except Lumley. “I bet he can’t do country dancing,” she said of the four year old in whose snow-mobile tracks she trailed. But in spite of her willingness to make herself the centre of every joke going, Lumley doesn’t seem half so vain, or self-absorbed as most of the other celeb explorers, and treats the matter of exploration with a disarming ‘learn-about-it-as-I-go-along’ seriousness, rather than a smug expert commentary. A boffin in Tromso did his best to debunk the magic of the lights, that ‘tricky lady’. But a guide named Kjetil vowed that her trip would not be in vain. And, do you know, when the lights appeared and she declared “it feels as though it knew I wanted to see it so badly”, it was awe-inspiring, and the tricky lady had indeed had her aura restored. Now that’s the magic of decent TV and the most pleasant, charismatic presenting I have seen in a long time. If only Joanna Lumley could be persuaded to throw in her lot with the gunslingers of the Movies for Men channel, or the BBC’s massed ranks of tame, vacuous, estate agents, then tonsillitis sufferers everywhere could rejoice in the restoration of charm to the vapid programming, with all of its deeply conservative underpinnings, that dominates today’s TV schedules.

‘The 39 Steps’, BBC1 8pm; initial thoughts

•December 28, 2008 • Leave a Comment

July’s G8 summit ended to the farcical sound of one G W Bush bidding “goodbye from the world’s biggest polluter”.

You see, it’s a strange thing, but even the biggest loonies and reactionaries are capable of rare moments of lucid observation. Just as the temptation to utterly reject everything they have to say starts to seem irresistible, they muster from somewhere a flash of sufficient insight to enable them to utter something vaguely consistent with what the rest of us long ago noticed. And then we’re temporarily fooled into thinking them to be just like us. Take religion for example: the only reason it still survives is because once in every couple of centuries or so, some bishop or other will suddenly notice that poverty still exists or see that the government has become incompetent.

John Buchan’s moment came in the third chapter of The Power House, when he had his rather stodgy hero explain his choice of a career at the bar thus:

“I am a dry creature, who loves facts and logic. I am not a flier, I have no new ideas, I don’t want to lead men, and I like work”.

Unfortunately, damning the legal professions with faint praise is pretty much as far as the nuance can be stretched when it comes to Buchan. What we remember of him is thanks not to any great literary talent but rather to Hitchcock’s version of The 39 Steps (1935) and that cheesy 1978 remake which saw Holby City’s Robert Powell cast as John Buchan in a film just made for dozy, puddinged-up festive afternoon TV showings.

But strangely, the jingoist icon Buchan is on the rise again, as surely as that oft-forgotten hero of the Great British dinner plate, the Yorkshire pudding, bloats itself up in the oven ready for its allotted career of mopping up gravy in the shadow of its more glamorous plate-mates. (A sprout, anyone?) The BBC have actually gone and remade The 39 Steps for seasonal viewing. Bloody hell! That was original. Having exhausted, in recent Christmases, Conan Doyle, M.R. James (in an, actually, decent radio adaptation), and now Buchan, whatever can we look forward to for 2009? The Riddle of the Sands, perhaps? Or will we see the return of Dick Barton and Snowy?

On the bright side, whatever they offer us next year can hardly be more irrelevant than was this effort. Its conclusion about twenty minutes ago was welcome; it spared me from having to resolve an ugly dilemma: was the programme really distracting me from the discomfort of a nasty dose of tonsillitis, or was it really the other way round?

Sure, it had all the ingredients of a ratings hit: it had a German spy dressed as a milkman; it had a British spy dressed as a suffragette; and it also had a love interest for Hannay. It also had an arresting start that had me thinking for a moment that things looked interesting: “Everything in England seemed cliquey, claustrophobic, classbound”, Hannay explained in the opening moments, pronouncing that this “deathly dull” life was inclining him towards the pleasures of London’s nightlife. ‘Ello, ‘ello, ‘ello, I thought, are we really going to see a more interesting, edgy, adaptation? Following the beeb’s opium-soaked Holmes, are we about to see a louche Hannay, with a taste for the flash, the filles de joie, and the frolicking. I couldn’t have been more mistaken.

I think the BBC must have been reading this defence of Buchan, for they cast Hannay from the ranks of Spooks. Would this be a Bond-like Hannay; a reinvented Buchan-hero for the Quantum of Solace generations? Far from it; the height of his smooth-talking was “I’m so sorry, did I startle you?” just minutes in. The turgidity of this early exchange set the scene for the quality of the dialogue and the characterization.

I ‘get’ that this is 2008 and that this Hannay was never supposed to be a character we would find politically or morally attractive. I wouldn’t want it any other way. But my problem is that this was a Hannay singularly lacking charisma in a soggy adaptation. By the end it became ridiculous; the U-boat scene didn’t so much seem referential towards Enigma so much as it just looked lazy.

When it ended, I half expected to hear one of the characters breathing great sighs of relief. But Buchan has had his one great flash of insight, and there just aren’t any hidden depths in this famous yarn for the BBC to plumb in search of insight or inspiration.

On the craft of the Coen brothers

•December 28, 2008 • Leave a Comment

This is my second attempt at blogging; my first fell by the wayside through neglect barely before it had begun. To remind me where it all went wrong last time, I will open by re-posting my last entry on my previous blog. I wrote this months and months ago, after watching the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. It didn’t really work as a review. Too long! Just consider it a few unstructured ramblings about colour-blind race in film.

‘No country for old men’ is a remarkable film. The economic dialogue and unpretentious setting against the Texas plains belie the meticulous craft with which the Coen brothers made this movie. At its heart is an age-old struggle between agency and fate that make it peculiarly American, at a time when American publics reassess their country’s historic role on the world stage.

Sherriff Bell is also reassessing his role, no longer sure that he wants to be part of “this world any more.” It is Bell who opens the film, with the world-weary air of an old testament prophet. His narrative stretches straight back into history – into the Texas of his father and grandfather – and forward into an uncertain future in which a young murder would have killed more had he not been sent to the chair. Just as the young killer would have gone on to offend again, so, too, must the wheels of justice obdurately grind; death life’s saviour in this harsh moral terrain. Evil is a condition of life in this world that Bell wants no more of. It is not just this ugly reversal that makes this brutal film irreligious, but also the Coens’ steadfast refusal to depict any redemptive beauty in submission to one’s fate.

The only real comfort in Moss’ fate is that he isn’t a murderer and probably lacks the agency to become one. This is the Moss whose linear logic resonates with that of the Sheriff : “Things happen. I can’t take ’em back.” No, Moss is no murderer. He is merely bound up in a chain of cause and effect emerging from Chigurh’s efforts to master fate. Yet though Moss is no killer he does have the power of life and death:

“No agua,” he says to the dying Mexican.

It is no coincidence that Carla Jean’s fate is sealed by Chigurh’s ‘word’ to Moss, an exchange which tied the two men to each other in a unity as both complicit in the circumstances leading to Carla Jean’s murder. Even if this does not convince the viewer of Moss’ moral equivalence to Chigurh, then it still seems to render Chigurh more human. In a world in which to be human is to be vulnerable, the brute finally encounters fate at the crossroads in the form of a farm truck. This is more than just another iconic motif employed in allusion to the central theme of fate and agency, for it also forces us once again to compare Moss and Chigurh and the violence in which they have been bound up. Rather than murder his finders for having seen him, Chigurh instead pays one for his shirt, just as Moss had on the bridge. Are the men yet equivalents? Earlier, there is a circular poetry to the way in which Chigurh fetches the milk that the Sheriff will dink, and sees a reflection of himself in a TV screen that parallels the sight to later greet the Sheriff. No wonder, then, that the Sheriff sarcastically addresses his deputy, in terms of a banalized invocation of violence which would itself mark the Sheriff as being as wanted as the psychopath. Perhaps fitting, given the opening, matter-of-fact reference to having sent a youth to the chair; just as the convict would have gone on to do the same thing again, so too will the state as the wheels of justice grind.

Bound up in a fundamental struggle over agency and free-will, the main characters are inescapably human. In contrast, the Mexicans are shorn of cause and characterization and are at the same time shorn of their humanity. Referenced only in terms of a racialised marker of difference – as Mexicans – they wrestle not with fate but inevitability; an inevitability bounded by social relations of ‘race’. When one of them – typically nameless – quizzes Moss’ mother-in-law she responds with banal racism:

“It’s not often you see a Mexican in a suit.”

The Mexicans, it seems, cannot help themselves. The most intriguing and subtle feature of the film  is the detail of their treatment by the Coen brothers. Throughout, they remain virtually silent, despite playing significant roles as the murderers on the Texas plains and the killers of Llewelyn Moss. But we can never know them as killers, as individually responsible; we can only know them as collectively responsible because “the Mexicans” did it. The most vocal Mexicans we encounter are the mariachis, befitting all stereotypes.

But it is also in death that the Mexicans are condemned to their position within a racialised social order: “supposedly”, says Bell, “a coyote won’t eat a Mexican”, directing us to the mythic, commonsense nature of this racism. But even the disdain with which coyotes are seen to hold Mexicans apparently has more dignity than their treatment at the hands of Mexicans:

“Aww hell’s bells, they even shot the dog.”

But this parallels the earlier chase, the most suspenseful moment of the film, in which having first willed Moss to escape his canine pursuer, we then will him to kill the beast. The similarities between Chigurh and Moss go unspoken; those between Moss and the Mexicans go suppressed and need to dredged up by the viewer, not because they are any less apparent  but because the Mexicans are apparently distanced from Moss by their treatment in terms that depict blue collar southern racism, circa 1980. ‘Race’ structures the imaginary horizons against which the film takes place. But the similarities are there: Mexicans shoot dogs, Moss shoots deer and  dogs, and Chigurh even shoots crows. Without sentimentalism or sanctimony, the Coen brothers prompt us to reexamine the moral economy through which we judge and differentiate violence and force.   But once we do this, we also have to interrogate the racialised dimensions of this. It is all masterfully accomplished. Shots of shoes figure prominently, for example. But the dead, millionaire, Mexican beneath the tree has holes in his that reveal something about the material conditions of life in a racialised social order.

“Ultimo hombre” says Moss to the dying Mexican, “there must be a last man standing.” There is – the sheriff. From the outset, Bell feels he will be safe not because of some mastery over fate, but just because bad will not befall him: “Don’t get hurt” “I never do” In fact, it is Bell’s removal from this social world that saves him, since this also involves the greatest display of agency: though at the close he appears to lack direction he has demonstrated his will by removing himself from the logic of Chigurh’s game. But despite the complexities of the film’s treatment of the theme of agency and free will, we have to watch this film against its grain to get the most of its subtleties, for the suppressed presence of the Mexicans reveals additional subtleties and sophistication to the Coen brothers’ treatment of agency and reflect the directors’ craft and attention to detail in this beautiful, brutal film.