Archive for the ‘ Film ’ Category

It’s a swindle…

imageFor a band that changed so much in our music and culture the Sex Pistols have, by and large, been ill-served on the movie front. Shortly after the band split The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle (directed by Julien Temple) was released. In many ways it is a fun film and offers some great footage of the band. There are classic scenes of the chaotic US tour including such highlights as Sid whacking a guy over the head with a bass and, of course, Lydon’s parting shot on the San Francisco stage where he looks out and says: ‘Ha ha ha, ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’ Steve Jones plays a Philip Marlowe like character, albeit a foul-mouthed version as he fucks and blinds his away around England and Brazil. There are oddities aplenty, Ronnie Biggs (a train robber, then on the run and living in Brazil) is shoe-horned in for no apparent reason and an most bizarrely mentions of ‘who killed Bambi?’ which is never explained (it comes from an earlier script). However, it is wrapped in a narrative which creates the impression that Malcolm McLaren (their manager) was some great puppet master that pulled the strings behind the scenes. The band are reduced to a play-thing for the machinations of their malevolent manager. It becomes little more than an ego-stroking exercise. What is rather ironic is that in the fictitious telling of the story whereby McLaren wants to make the band out to be anti rock n’ roll his story makes them the most boring rock n’roll cliche. He destroys the bands power; he reduces them to a cheap carry-on farce and robs them of any real potency. All that is left is the cartoon version of the band, the one that can’t play, the one that pukes all over the place and the one that was essentially a boy band created to sell clothes for Malcom’s infamous shop, Sex.

Sid and Nancy was directed by Alex Cox and was released in 1986. Gary Oldman stars as the doomed Sid Vicious but just like the aforementioned Swindle the characters are reduced to caricatures. Oldman does a great job with the material as does Chloe Webb in her role as Nancy Spungeon alas, the rest is shocking. Lydon is portrayed as a bean-eating joke,one that is is jealous of Nancy. Steve Jones and Paul Cook are just in the background but criminally when Cook is shown he is an idiot that for some reason the band don’t like. Verisimilitude is absent from the gig scenes, punks with day-glo Mohawks are pogoing about despite the fact Mohawks weren’t to arrive on the scene until the 1980s, Poly Styrene, half Somalian lead singer of X-Ray Spex is transformed into a white woman and it all just seems off. Again, the potency of the band is neutered.

In the end maybe a fictitious telling of the Pistols story is impossible. If you are interested in their story read Lydon’s No Irish, No Blacks,No Dogs and Anger is an Energy, Glen Matlock’s I was a teenage Sex Pistol and Steve Jones’ Lonely Boy. Three films I would recommend are Don Letts The Punk Rock Movie, DOA by Lech Kowalski and The Filth and Fury by Julien Temple. Get off your arse.

Ed Wood

Our lives they take us where they will
the heart it must obey its call
we trample over God until
God bends to that which conquers all.
Siren like, the dream it sings
upon her rocks to dash our hopes
the sweetness of the chase begins,
a vision which surpasses awe.
When darkness can’t illuminate
the air departs like dying breath
Upon that sigh again we rise
The bitter sun laughs as we fall.
God in man. The man in God.
Yet the devil takes the good,
the father, son, unholy ghosts
me, my nightmares and Ed Wood.

I was thinking about Ed Wood and the futility of following the dream of art and yet it sings…

Gravity, De Beauvoir and other moments.

 

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I finally got around to viewing Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and I have to say I was suitably impressed. I know the scientific community were giving out about the mistakes but ultimately I felt the film was less about scientific accuracy and more about the isolation, loneliness and the interiority of grief. Sandra Bullock plays Ryan who, apart from being on a spacewalk which goes disastrously wrong, is dealing with her own personal tragedy. Out in space, self-contained in her spacesuit she comes to embody the manner in which grief both isolates and can, for a time, come to define us and the ways we cling to it to survive. It is a simple conceit but an effective one. However, it also reminds us that death is the ultimate existentialist idea, for it is in facing death, and therefore thinking about life, we ultimately give meaning to that life. Being in the realm of existentialism got me thinking that at the core of the film is femininity,or more properly the idea of femininity, just like that other great Sci-Fi epic Alien. Space becomes the locus were, to use the De Beauvoirian idea, immanence and transcendence can occur. Females throughout history have only existed in the interior space according to De Beauvoir and could not transcend beyond. In the beginning Ryan is trapped in her interiority, literally by her space suit and figuratively by her grief and her sense of motherhood. The image of the womb is implicitly made when Ryan enters the International Space Station but she transcends the womb (representing essentialist ideas of the female) to drive outwards from herself and in doing so begins to leave behind her grief and her fear. Finding the will to live she transcends the moment, writes her own script (and in doing so illustrates the triumph of existentialism over essentialism) and cuts the umbilical cord. In cutting that umbilical cord she shows that we can move beyond ideas of what we should be and also that the grief we carry when we experience loss does not need to define us or our future. Ryan also faces her own existentialist crisis, she momentarily loses hope and nearly surrenders to the vast nothingness. Yet it is her love that wins over despair. Kierkegaard states :’Love hopes all things – yet is never put to shame. To relate oneself expectantly to the possibility of the good is to hope. To relate oneself expectantly to the possibility of evil is to fear. By the decision to choose hope one decides infinitely more than it seems, because it is an eternal decision.’ Ryan, in choosing hope makes that decision and finds the hope in living. De Beauvoir once said ‘It is not in giving life but in risking life that man is raised above the animal; that is why superiority has been accorded in humanity not to the sex that brings forth but to that which kills.’ In a way, Ryan illustrates that she can do both: she can give live, both to a child and herself, and she can kill the past which holds her back. At the end of the film she is reborn and free to create herself anew. In my mind Sci-Fi should deal with complex themes and make us view the normal at a different angle at that level Gravity worked for me. Go watch it!

Fiery the angels fell (and other moments)

I want to talk about a beautiful film that lives long in the memory. Don’t you love when a movie does that? I can never forget the soliloquy at the end of Blade Runner, you know the one…the one about the rain and life. Odd thing about Blade Runner is that it’s sometimes ignored by sections of the viewing public because it is Sci-Fi. Genre plays an important role in how we decide what to watch. Up to a point cartoon films were firmly in the genre marked: Children’s movies but somewhere around the late nineties Pixar began producing animation that had nods and winks to the parents in the audience and all of a sudden animated films became socially acceptable. Of course, Pixar are not short of money so their films are very slick and digital: high-end stuff that teaches simple enough morals about the values and mores of the western world. The film I want to talk about is the opposite in every way firstly it isn’t digital secondly it is black and white and thirdly it is set in the Islamic world. Persepolis is a 2007 film based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same name. Persepolis means city of Persians and the story is a Bildungsroman of a young girl called Marji as she comes to terms with the effects of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Again, we are in a different world from Pixar et al as this films deals with politics, religion, revolution and the way in which the individual deals with all three. It is also a film about love: familial and romantic love and the ways in which Marji has to deal with the beauty and pain that exists in both.

 

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Like all good history it allows us to make sense of seismic events through the eyes of the individual. It constantly reminds us that behind ideology there are human stories and behind every revolutionary dream there are groups willing to seize power and clamp down on dissent. We see the downfall of the Shah and the rise of fundamentalism in Iran as one torturous regime leads to yet another oppressive regime. It is the classic story of revolution: we have the revolutionary moment leading to rupture and then the return of the status quo. Marji is a rebellious girl and her ideas of the world clash with that of the new theocratic leadership for one she likes to listen to punk and heavy metal. This is itself is an act of revolt as it is perceived as western and decadent by the powers that be. We see the way in which girls and women lose their freedom in the new Iran we see Marji packed off to Europe (where she meets discrimination due to her nationality) and we see her spiral into depression due to everything she has experienced and witnessed. Revolutions, more often than not go wrong and it is the masses, the ones that had suffered previously, that suffer all over again. I don’t want to spoil the ending but it lives long in the memory and serves as a fitting coda to what has gone before. Yes, Persepolis may not be highly polished in the way that animation has become under the digital age, you may not be able to see every hair individually move or there may not be countless references to other franchises but for all that it is a movie that deals with, rather than nods at, adult themes whilst all the time wearing its heart on its sleeve, which is no bad thing. Go see it.

 

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They flutter behind you, your possible pasts

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History is a strange discipline. Is it the study of the narrative of humanity or is it the study of the motivation of the individual and how said individual collides with the colossal events that press against him or her? In ways it is both (and at another level it is neither, since the past no longer exists it means history is conducted in an ever occurring present, a present in which we impose our standards and mores onto the past in an attempt to make sense of our present, but then I digress). Some people believe that history is the study of facts. Facts such as Napoleon had a height complex, Marie Antoinette said ‘ let them eat cake’ and the Duke of Wellington, embarrassed about his Irishness, claimed ‘Being born in a barn does not make one a horse’. Incontrovertible facts! Of course the three facts I have mentioned are absolute rubbish as Napoleon was of average height for a European male at the time, Marie (known affectionately by her subjects as The Austrian Whore) never said anything of the sort and it was Daniel O’ Connell that made the whole barn and horse claim. As Mr Gradgrind explained in Hard Times ‘You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them’.

Ah the Victorians, they looked for certitude in a world and universe where they felt displaced and history became about facts and facts and more facts. They were wrong mind you and the reason is simple: human beings have feelings and each and every one of us experiences this world differently. Even if two people watch the same event they do so from a different angle both in a physical and emotional sense. We can establish the fact that an event occurred on a certain date etc these things are not up for debate (or are they? Of course they are! We are forgetful creatures) but emotions and feelings get in the way. Thank God they do. What are we without them? We are a glorious mess of all we have learned. Flawed and beautiful, biased and blessed. In many ways history is a giant gossip session about the way people, as groups and individuals, behave. If we remove human agency what are we? There can be no certainty. We cannot discern the future from the past and we cannot remove our emotions from that past. Everything we have done right, everything we have done wrong remains part of us. The trick, I suppose, is not to be bound by it and not to be controlled by our story/stories. When we read about an event in history we should, I would argue, remember the very real people behind the event. There is a great moment in Oliver Stone’s biopic of Richard Nixon and it occurs just after Nixon decides he will have to stand down as president of the United States. Nixon looks up at a portrait of JFK and he says: ‘When they look at you they see what they want to be. When they look at me they see what they are.’ It isn’t a fact but when I watched that film and heard that line I was never able to look at Richard Nixon the same way again. It encapsulates history for me: humanity is one big flawed mess looking to better itself even if we often fall short of that aim. The history book on the shelf isn’t always repeating itself but we are.

Things Left Unspoken

Recently, I have been watching an excellent four part documentary on Ireland entitled Muide Eire (We are Ireland).  The series concentrates on the representation of Ireland and the Irish in film and television. It is wide in scope, considering such topics as the stereotyping of the Irish as a bunch of God fearing drunks on the one hand to our relationship with the land. Nationalism, religion, land and drink are like footprints on the sand of the collective Irish memory in that they leave their traces. The scars of the nation’s colonised past run deep in the Irish psyche. The dark side of the psyche was under the spotlight in the episode entitled Smacht (Control) and it really hit a nerve. This episode was concerned with the relationship between screen and society and, at a personal level, it was difficult to watch.

Why? Because it dealt with the things left unspoken. These are the parts of history that skulk Grendel-like in the dark margins of historiography. It dealt with the ways in which Irish society treats women, children, the poor and the emigrant. It probed the way history has, at least until very recently, shied away from the uncomfortable truth. It highlighted the ways in which the words of equality and fairness that our founding fathers and mothers hoped we would bring to life at the moment we broke from empire have proved to be nothing more than ephemera.

 Through film and television these ephemeral words are confronted by the vision and viewpoint of the camera. The cold hard gaze penetrates, illuminates and commentates on the dark corners and the truth behind the lie. Films such as Song for a Raggy Boy, H-3 and Kings show the complexity of Irish life from our politics to our relationships. Abortion was covered by Margo Harkin in Hush-a-Bye Baby she stated that when she addressed the audience at the premiere in Dublin she said ‘We all know women who have had this experience’. She was met by silence. Kings shone a light on the emigrant experience and in particular the ‘navvies’ of London. Again, we were in the domain of the voiceless, the forgotten Irish. As one character said ‘we are no longer Irish, no longer Connemara men. We are something else, we are Paddies’.

There is no doubt that confronting the past is difficult. History writers often focus their eye on the movers and shakers of history and in the process forget the hoi polloi. Social history, and in turn the experience of the men and women at its core, is often seen as problematic. They often don’t conform to a countries narrative. Historians often ask: ‘Where are the sources? How can we say, with any degree of certainty, that the individual experienced what they claim to have experienced?’ My answer is: yes, there are difficulties but we must find a way to make sure these experiences are not forgotten. We have a duty to write and to show, both in a factual and fictional way, to make sure that we remember, no matter how distressing.

 And distressing it was. The reason I found it difficult to watch was because of the violence that was committed to children in our little republic. In particular there was a film called Our Boys about the way in which schoolboys were beaten in a school run by Christian Brothers. It was made in 1981 but such was the subject matter that it wasn’t shown till 1991. The director Cathal Black stated that he wished it was shown in it’s time as it had lost some of its impact when watched out of context. Again, things left unspoken. Dark corners left unilluminated due to fear that we would have to confront the darker sides of our nature.

Going to school in 1980s Ireland I had reason to see that darker side. I went to school after they had banned hitting children but it still occurred. Some teachers knew who to hit. They would pick on boys that had family problems or those whose parents didn’t have the words to complain to the school authorities. I remember when I was nine I saw a fully grown man drag one of my classmates across tables. Another time a teacher threw a twelve year old boy against a sink and his crime?  It was to look at a skin mag. I was never hit but what I remember most was the fear. For most of my primary education I was terrified of doing something wrong. I could never admit I was bad at maths because I was afraid I would be ridiculed. Thinking back now what I hated most was the way those in authority misused their power. Unfortunately, what I witnessed was all very minor stuff to what would be uncovered in 1990s Ireland. But watching that documentary made me realise all the little boys that were hurt under our watch. Perfidious Albion wasn’t to blame here. All the hurt of things left unspoken. The screen becomes a mirror reflecting the ambivalence of our society towards those that were the weakest let us hope that in these testing times we never forget the lessons of history.