THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER***


THIS IS A fascinating movie because it’s very good ON IT’S OWN TERMS, and -usually- they aren’t mine. But I understand why it’s been so well received by so many. Thor: Love and Thunder is the uber (in the non-taxi meaning of the word) MCU movie. It thoroughly understands and brilliantly expresses its brand. MCU -knowing, self-referential, irreverent, sexy – is the antithesis of its DC nemesis, whose brand personality can be summed up with one name: Ben Affleck. DC and Ben, the dark, sour, self-important, humourless side of the superhero coin.
Give me MCU any day.
As Thor is an expression of its brand so too does its director, Taika Waititi, with his off-centre humour, know with guided missile precision, exactly where his audience’s funny bone is. It’s a winning, and amazingly profitable combination.
And, the cherry on the cake, the story’s a simple one. Loyal believer, Gorr (Christian Bale) loses faith in his -cynical, sneering- god. And decides to take revenge on all gods. (Now there’s a bigger, maybe deliberate, meta message here, which endears me all the more to this big, loud movie…a discussion for another time). Thor is of course a god. No biggie. They ache, they laugh, they grow fat, they quarrel. Like Olympians, they’re just like you and me. Except they look like Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman. And you and me look like, well, you and me.
Kids are kidnapped, Zeus gets zapped, love lost becomes love found. Thor has a very powerful tool which he knows how to whip out. And there’s a lot of CGI, nicely countered with some very funny gags and a light touch in a universe darkened by glum Gorr/Bale, still dark from his days in Gotham.
On a very hot day (who needs imaginary evil kid kidnappers and god killers when we have the real things in our climate-indifferent Parliament?), in a cool, dark cinema, Chris and Natalie were a perfect way to chill out.

THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER. Dir: Taika Waititi (The Mandalorian, Thor: Ragnarok. Hint for the Wilderpeople) with: Chris Hemsworth, Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Russell Crowe. Cinematographer: Barry Baz Idoine (Rogue One). Production Designer: Nigel Phelps (World War Z)

LIBERALISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS


 There are a multitude of seemingly unconnected shocks to the system that shape our lives: the rise of populism, the Big Lie, climate change deniers, the increasing gap between rich and poor, alternative realities and fake news, the cancel culture etc.

Francis Fukuyama’s latest book Liberalism and its Discontents -short, readable but dense –  helps provide some of the strands that knit together these ‘shocks’.

In his perspective, liberalism’s inherent fault lines were weaponized by (mainly) the Right (Shouldn’t this malign group be called the Wrong?).

He begins with a succinct overview:
Classic liberalism he defines, is a system designed to give individuals core universal, shared rights: that of speech, religion, association, political life, property ownership etc…all protected by the law. It offers the individual the right to determine autonomous goals; the freedom of individual choice without government interference.

But all under a rule of law that seeks to both constrain government and political abuse, while offering protection of property rights against arbitrary seizure.

These are values that seek to unify its citizens and transcend the divisiveness offered by nationalist ideologies.


We often speak of “liberal democracies”. But these are two distinct ideologies. Many democratically elected leaders (Trump, Boris Johnson, Oban etc) often feel threatened by these constraining liberal laws.

So far so good.

The blueprint for modern liberalism, he noters, lies in the writings of Harvard professor John Rawles. Rawles sees liberalism as the antidote to Bentham’s -anti-individual- philosophy (that the good of the majority overrules the needs of the minority).

But this overwhelming emphasis on individual rights and individual freedoms has quickly morphed into  libertarian freedoms (or “freedom loving” as it is phrased in the UK).

Or the freedom, indeed the right to, say, reject Covid vaccinations.

These individual freedoms are contrasted with the role of state. This has been reframed via the powerful, Nobel prize-winning, pro-market theories of the likes of Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek etc: the state as the guardian of law and protector of its citizens has been reframed into the damp hand holding back economic progress. The State is the enemy to individual autonomy and personal wealth.

And it’s not just the Right who hold this view. Both Left and Right now see the state as inherently incompetent and corrupt.

Pro-market (neo-liberal) economic theories aligned growth and wealth with deregulation. The message from Reagan and Thatcher (and Clinton and Blair) was simple: market forces and individual choice = good. State involvement (or “the nanny state” as the Conservatives came to define it) = bad; an intrusion into our private lives.


This major push to neutralize such (or, rather, any) state involvement was built on the bogus claims that bigger corporations were more efficient than either smaller ones or state enterprises; and that as a result the earlier vigilance of anti-trust activities was wrong-headed and economically damaging.
The reality of the marketplace was that bigger corporations were able to out-price their smaller competitors (yay! Cheaper goods for all of us) until these competitors disappeared and then monopolies re-emerged in full. (And such mega corps not only now control the economies but also the political shape of the countries they ‘own’).


Fukuyama notes that the anti-statist, deregulation powers that have prevailed have not only conveniently ignored the role of the state in the development of, say the Internet, but have resulted in a trade-off between small mom and pops v, say, Walmart and Starbucks. This has compromised intangibles such as consumer welfare, neighborhoods and communities (not to mention some dignity of labour) .

Consumer welfare is not the same as consumer well-being. He notes that no-liberalism offers a stark definitional philosophical choice: are human beings simply consuming animals in need of cheap goods or are they ‘producing’ animals in need of social and creative connectivity? (To the present UK Government the choice is clear. There really is no economic role for creativity). Where does human happiness lie? Do we prefer to live in liberal, not libertine, European cities where the governments have not yielded power and have thus ensured the continuity of local enterprises (coffee shops, village markets etc.) or in the increasingly homogenous, faceless big cities of the US and England (which, by the way have sacrificed ‘cheap’ for corporate wealth generation)

It get worse.
And that’s the issue of autonomy.

Rawles argued that only by removing the state could the individual self-actualize. This idea of personal autonomy morphs into two fundamental tenets of ‘faith’:


The first is that choice within a moral framework has moved to choice of that framework itself. Early liberalism was based upon a basic and shared understanding of truth and reality …the basic idea that truth was based upon empirical evidence (usually provided by experts) and not on the authority of the speaker. This, the scientific method, was then seen as the victory of reason over superstition and obscurantism.
Seems pretty easy to accept that fundamental idea, glibly captured with the assertion, “we can argue about the facts, but we can’t make up our own facts”.

Or, maybe not.

As Nietzsche noted, “There are no facts only interpretations”. Or as one British politician put it when experts suggested that Brexit would spell economic disaster for Britain, “Who needs experts?”
First Nietzsche, then the semiotician, Sassure (Language cannot really articulate objective “truth” merely indicate the divide between the signified and the signifier) added to the cloudiness of ‘truth’. His ideas along with those of Roland Barthes, Lacan and Foucault, led to the idea of “radical subjectivity”. This posits that our sense of the real is embedded in the language we use; and that our understanding of society is so thoroughly shaped by our individual cultural, social and racial backgrounds that two people can honestly experience two entirely different perspectives of the same reality.

Liberalism demands a respect for privacy (that each person has the right to live and believe as they choose). The new liberalism suggests that all belief is valid, so long as ‘my’ belief or my reality does not compromise or endanger another’s. The cult of individualism based upon “radical subjectivity” has provided the ultimate philosophical ‘excuse’ that each person’s viewpoint is valid and probably mutually excluding. The old White English colonial can never accept or understand the Black colonized person’s angst. The White Supremacists will never be able to appreciate, let alone accept why “Black Lives Matter”.

Equivalency is all!
In other words division is baked into our apprehension of the world. This kind of equivalency has been weaponized to the extent that the ‘truth’ of raw feeling and emotion (The Big Lie) has triumphed over cold empirical analysis.

The result of this is “motivated reasoning”: People select empirical data and divine theories to support their biases and preferences. The democratizing reality of social media unchained from demands of validation and proof, makes the private (individualistic) bias public.

At the political level, the norm of disagreeing over ideological or political differences has been replaced by the reality that different groups, exposed as they are to different media messaging, see entirely different perspectives of reality. They believe different truths. The middle ground of greyness has been replaced by the clarity of back v white. And ne’er the t’wain shall meet.

The false belief in the stolen election is a classic example of such “motivated reasoning” leading to the rise of a party (the Republicans) as an anti-democratic force.


Fukuyama notes that much of the rise of fake news and the rigid divisiveness of separate belief systems stem from the shift noted above. (It’s not that new. Remember the US’ defense against its massacre of Iraqis even when there were clearly no WMD’s, was that they don’t yield to ordinary reality, they create their own! Why take issue with a book you object to, when you can just burn or ban said book?)

The other fundamental tenet was the idea that the autonomy of the individual applies to the autonomy of the group. In other words, armed with my alternative framework (see above), it’s fine for me as an empowered freedom loving individual to be part of an autonomous freedom loving empowered group (which give me the permission to storm the capitol).


Even the hero of the left Herbert Marcuse (One Dimensional Man) attacked liberal societies as failing to offer either equality or real autonomy. Such societies he showed were capitalist elites who set the real agendas (and who needed to be taken out). Marcuse’s criticism is an earlier iteration of what would evolve into Critical Race Theory, an academic hypothesis eagerly sized upon by the Right, most of whom had not read the theses, to divert attention from class and income equality to seize on more spurious cultural issues.

Thus, Fukuyama shows/concludes, the seeds of liberalism’s fragility has lain in its own inherent weakness.  Liberalism’s appeal to and offer of the sanctity and equality of individual choice, fall apart if you’re say, Black or gay or a woman, when individual choice is often a daydream. Such individuals found that true autonomy depended on their affiliation with protective like-minded groups, be they LGBTQ groups or, soon enough, White Supremacists ones.


Liberalism’s faith in the universalism of human equality bred a thin sense of community based upon a vague idea of global cosmopolitanism. The philosophy is so generic and universalist that it fails to offer a real framework for national identity (a ground quickly occupied by nationalists and identity groups)

Belief in the law, in fact and reason foundered on what its opponents saw as its lax moral direction (the acceptance of homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia) shaped by an unelected group of legislators. This suggests Fukuyama, has resulted in the grand desire to return to an imagined moral order… protected in the US by the true Americans (or Trump voters) and rationalized by the likes of Adrian Vermeule (who argues for “the authority of rule and rulers” and the fantasy of strong man leadership). It justifies the need to stop progressives (or Democrats) by violence if necessary.

As with so many of these analyses, there are attempts to suggest ways forward. But they’re thin and vague. This isn’t a fault in the book…it’s perhaps notes for a follow up one.





TOP GUN: Maverick *** Boo-Yah


THE BIG QUESTION that I pondered (briefly, mind you) as I sat blown away by the acrobatic pyrotechnics of the absolutely entertaining Top Gun: Maverick was, wouldn’t it be great if some of these aircraft (along with Tom Cruise of course) were on loan to the Ukrainians?

Of course this is mere wishful thinking. The gung-ho image of superior American firepower fighting a ‘just’ war unblemished by massive collateral damage, chaotic retreat, sundry torture, cosy alignments with various murderous regimes and sordid back-room deals, is pure Hollywood fantasy.

Welcome to the newest most expensive Navy Recruitment commercial ever made. Producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Tom Cruise will one day be awarded Purple Hearts for services to the Armed Forces. Those two are more than an Armed forces recruitment mega force, they’re a PR blessing to justify to its tax paying public the largest armed forces expenditure in the world. With Top Gun: Maverick, it takes so little to imagine an America made great again.

Anyway, that’s just fantasy rambling

As to the story’s mission kinda impossible? A top team of fighters (just four of them) are to swoop in under the radar (flying just about 100 feet through a curving passage flanked by impossibly high mountains) and take out a new uranium processing facility (in an unnamed country) before said unnamed country’s own Air Force can respond.

The mission must be accomplished in under 3 minutes should you choose to accept it.

And the only man with the skill set and deering-do to train a new generation of young top guns to pull off this impossible feat is…you guessed it.

At 58, he’s still a captain. His old friend, Ice Man (Val Kilmer) is now an admiral. Rooster (Miles Teller), the son of his original wing-man who was killed in Top Gun One, is one of the new guns Maverick must train. Rooster blames Maverick. He’s a bitter man. Will he forgive Maverick and come around? Jon Hamm (Code named Cyclone) is the Admiral in charge of the mission. He’s pissed off that his mentor (Ice Man) recommended Maverick as the instructor. Will he grudgingly accept that Maverick is as good as they say? Jennifer Connolly is the old flame who Maverick also pissed off way back when. Will she ever forgive him?
There’s also beach side game of American football where Maverick’s sweaty, muscled top guns, mainly barely clothed, wrestle with each other in homo-erotic fashion. Will there be various guns on top later?

No prize for the answers to these questions.     

This is a big, expensive, corny movie. But damn, it’s well done!

Director Joseph Kosinski’s woozy, heart-stopping aerial acrobatics are gob-smacking. The silly story drives the narrative and it all hangs together. This is glitzy Hollywood, doing what it does best: pulling us where it wants, taking our breaths away and forcing us to cheer even when we know better.
Ad Man of the year: Jerry Bruckheimer. Salesman of the year: Tom Cruise.

What a way to kick off a post pandemic (I’ve been told) summer blockbuster.

When can I see it again?

TOP GUN: MAVERICK. Dir: Joseph Kosinski. Writers: Christopher McQuarrie (This is Cruise’s favourite writer: Mission Impossible -Fallout, The Mummy, Edge of Tomorrow etc), Eric Singer, Ehren Kruger from a story from Justin Marks and Peter Craig. With: Tom Cruise, Jennnifer Connolly, Miles Teller, Val Kilmer, Jon Hamm, Charles Parnell. Cinematographe: Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi). Production Designer: Jeremy Hindle (Severance). Composer: Lorne Balfe (Mission Impossible: Fallout). This movie boasts of 133 persons in the camera department and 334 in the visual effects department along with 40 for sound. It’s that kind of movie.

OPERATION FOXLEY. Kill Time for Hitler and Other Comedy Routines


ERIC LEE’S SHORT, but fascinating new book, “Britain’s Plot to Kill Hitler” is subtitled: “The True Story of Operation Foxley and SOE”. The addition of the word “true” in the title is a strategic choice, because nothing in this SOE plan (Strategic Operations Executive, the forerunner of today’s MI6) sounds real or even serious….or for that matter, even sane.

As Lee suggests, killing Hitler would no doubt have saved lives. But based on these hair-brained ideas and even on some of the more outlandish ideas put forward by the OSS (the early version of the CIA), Hitler was safe (until of course he topped himself)

Lee, ever the academic, points out the absurdities of some (OK, all) of the ideas mapped out in laborious detail in Operation Foxley, but treats them with the respect of a serious historian. (Indeed, most of the book is a reprint of the actual Operations document with its maps and minute details about locations, timing etc.)

But try as I might, I can’t treat this operation with such respect; and can only thank God that this division of the OSS wasn’t responsible for running the war effort. Had they been, we’d all be speaking German by now. Operation Foxley is pure, laugh out loud absurdist comedy.

Here are the highlights dreamed up by these genius boffins from Britain’s revered WW2 secret service:

Plan One: Mimic the plot of a Fritz Lang movie, Manhunt, and hide a lone sniper in the woods. Apparently, every morning, Hitler went for an unprotected two-kilometre stroll outside his Bavarian retreat. The OSS plan was to locate a sharp shooter, dressed as a Nazi officer, within striking range of the Fuhrer (forget about the throngs of bodyguards protecting him) and shoot him. All you needed was a skilled marksman who spoke German fluently and who could bluff his way into the patrolled woods (aka The Jackal). So, naturally they zeroed in on someone who was living in the US (There were no British officers in the UK who spoke German?), was only passingly OK as a German speaker and was astigmatic and a poor shot. Had he even been able to stumble into the right position he’d have missed his target.


Plan Two:  Poison Hitler with thallium (Agatha Christie’s drug of choice) so that he’d die and the foolish Germans wouldn’t suspect that he’d been poisoned. This delicate task would be executed when Hitler was on his personal train. A handy French cleaning woman (No doubt recruited in the Assassins Wanted section of Le Monde) would smuggle the drug on board the train and sneak it into the water supply ready for Hitler’s afternoon tea. The dictator’s love of tea would be the death of him. Problem with thallium is that the victim would recover if he ingested a less than fatal dose. But his hair would drop off…which might just give the game away. And then others on the train might well have ingested the water (“Anyone else want a cuppa? I’m mother”) which would lead to a lot of hair loss on said train.
No doubt the sharp-eyed Gestapo might have suspected that something was amiss.


Plan Three: Later dubbed The Manchurian Candidate, after the book in which an unsuspecting American would be brainwashed into doing the bidding of a foreign enemy. This plan was to hypnotise the captured Nazi officer Rudolph Hess (…whose bonzo plan had compelled him to fly a confiscated aircraft solo, into GB where he’d secretly meet with Churchill and win him over to sue for peace. This deluded man crash landed and was promptly imprisoned). The Operation’s bright idea was to return the hypnotised Hess into the forgiving and waiting arms of the Fuhrer who, no doubt, suspecting nothing, would then be promptly murdered by Hess.
Lee notes that it would actually be possible to hypnotise someone to execute such a crime (should Hitler and his team not have shot Hess the minute he returned to Germany).


Plan Four: Infiltrate Hitler’s close group of confidants ((no big deal ) and blow him up. OK there’d be collateral damage, but so what? There was also a plan to send a troop of paratroopers into Hitler’s Alpine retreat and take him out in a hail of gunfire. But neither Tom Cruise nor the team from The Guns of Navarrone were available.

The absurdities of these plans reveal a mind boggling arrogance of assumed success in the face of a stupid enemy.
The Brits were not alone. Both the Soviets and the US also had their “Kill Hitler” plans in process. The Soviets actually had the opportunity with the most potential even before Hitler had invaded Europe. Think how that would have changed history. The Soviets had planned to shoot him while he was dining in his favourite restaurant. They’d even rehearsed it thoroughly. But Stalin backed out when Hitler signed an agreement with them, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The only death was that of the pact, two years later.

It was the Americans though, who had the big kahooona prize winner of an idea: OSS boss, William “Wild Bill” Donovan had hired an ideas man, one Stanley Lovell. Lovell’s prize-winning idea? Zero in on Hitler’s “feminine” thought processes. No kidding. Lovell along with a psychologist, Walter Langer, dreamed up the idea of capitalising on Hitler’s obvious excess of estrogen (evidenced by his shrill, girly, speeches). Their dastardly plan was to secretly inject him (via a turned Nazi Gardner…probably related to the turned French cleaning woman) with feminizing hormones. This would make his moustache drop off. No moustache (plus soprano voice) = the death of Hitler’s appeal. End of the war.

Shockingly Operation Foxley’s genius strategies were never activated.

And the rest, as they say, was history

THE LOST CITY*** Where Humour’s to be Found


Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum have real chemistry in this occasionally hilarious, occasionally dull comedy adventure movie.

She’s a nerdy, socially awkward but very successful adventure/romance novelist…who knows a thing or two about deciphering the ancient hieroglyphics of a fabled lost land (as so many adventure/romance novelists do). And who turns up for a fan-meet wearing a deep cut, clinging sparkly onezie. As is expected, this onezie get slowly stripped away as the story progresses. He’s the ripped, blonde, not too bright cover model; the cliched embodiment of the cliched woman’s idea of the action hero. He’s also of course Magic Mike and flaunts so much of his bod so often you’d think this entire production was a teaser campaign for his new Magic Mike movie.

The catalyst of the story isn’t that he’s secretly in love with her, that’s expected. That’s the “rom”. But that he actually thinks, without any reason to do so, that he’s a real action hero. That’s the “com”

But, as the story continuously reminds us, “Never judge a book by its cover”.

Naturally there’s a fragment of a scroll indicating the whereabouts of an ancient treasure…that’s located in a lost city. And there’s a ruthless bad guy (an overwhelmed Daniel Radcliffe) who wants the treasure. There’s also a real action hero, who looks like the cliché (Brad Pitt), along with assorted thugs, underground caverns, cars falling off cliffs, the cliched sassy bosomy Black friend (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and lush exotic scenery.

What’s not to love.

Bullock’s and Tatum’s screwball antics and their wholehearted eagerness to cast all personal dignity to the wind can be very funny. But it’s the fact that just when you thought you knew what was going to happen and something really unexpected does, the movie lifts above the expected hilariously. This switcheroo helps pull off the balance between mindless silliness and charming, funny rom com adventure.

It’s not as funny as it should have been. But it’s often unexpectedly laugh out loud funny…funny enough to earn the price of admission.

What it wasn’t thank God, is that absolutely failed version of a not dissimilar comedy adventure movie genre, Jungle Cruise; a movie that should be studied by all students of the cinema from now until the end of time on how not to cast, write or direct a comedy.Ever

THE LOST CITY. Dir: Aaron and Adam Nee. Writer(s): Oren Uziel (Escape Room 2) and Dana Fox (Cruella); Story by Seth Gordon (Dir Horrible Bosses). With: Sandra Bullock, Channing Tatum, Danielle Radcliffe, Brad Pitt, Da’Vine Joy Randolph (Only Murders in the Building). Cinematographer: Jonathan Sela (Fast and Furious; Deadpool 2). Production Designer: Jim Bisell (Skyscraper. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation)

CODA**** Oh So Worth its Oscar


“COMETH THE HOUR, cometh the film”, you could say.

In a despairing age of cynicism, CODA (children of deaf adults) is a delightful, sweet, charming movie that deals with issues that are far from delightful or sweet; and, more importantly, manages to tell what could so easily be a pretty sentimental story, but without the usual lashings of saccharine, mawkishness and insincerity. 

It’s the story of a young girl, Ruby (Emilia Jones) who, by dint of being the only one in her family who can hear, becomes her family’s de-facto carer; their aural link with the outside world. This is a world that, ever cautious of anyone outside the mainstream, see the family as freaks, as outsiders and interlopers. The family understandably have built around them a cocoon of defence; a mini eco-system of self-reliance and resilience; and an unhealthy dependence on a child (OK, she’s 18…still a child)

But Ruby is more than their interpreter. She is a singer. Her need to communicate goes beyond sign reading; her desire is to be more than the family’s Google translate.

And herein lie the nature of this oh so Oscar-winner-worthy movie: Ruby needs to lift herself away from an imposed identity as “daughter who hears”, away from a family seen by everyone else as “the deaf people”, living and working in a society seen by the family as “people who are against us”. She needs to live up to her promise, to her sense of self as a strong, talented, courageous individual just as her family need to fulfil their own maturation into fighting for what they believe as individuals not as a cliché defined by their society. And this society can only realize itself when it too learns to see beyond the deafness to the humanity and unity of purpose these deaf people share with it.

(Imagine if all of divided America took this lesson to heart!)

As Ruby ‘finds her voice’ and learns how to engage emotionally with the society around her through the power of song (and a cute fellow singer), that society also learns how to engage with the deaf, beyond the need for speech, all through the power of collaboration and respect. 

CODA is a story that, in the wrong hands and with the wrong cast, can so easily be just corny.

But young Emilia Jones (from the Netflix series “Locke and Key”) is a charismatic presence with an astounding voice; and her deaf (aurally challenged?) fellow lead actors (Oscar winners Tony Kotsure and Marlee Matlin as her parents and Daniel Durant as her brother) are a dream cast. Their characters are antsy, often curmudgeonly, often selfish and never anything less than watchably human.

Sian Heder, who directed multiple episodes of Orange is the New Black, and wrote the screenplay brings an un-showy “realness” to the contrasting worlds of preppy, bitchy, American high school, smelly open sea fishing and, of course the joy of song (massively assisted by Lonnie Farmer as the motivating choir master).

And the icing on this cake is the fabulous music: several great pop classics re-energised by being dragooned into telling this tale of empowerment and achievement

CODA; Dir./Screenplay: Sian Heder. With: Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, Lonnnie Farmer. Writers: Victor Bedos and Stanislas Carré de Malberg from the original French movie, La Famille Belier” . Cinematographer:  Paula Huidobro (Pam and Tommy)

SOME NEW TATE PUBLICATIONS****


PERHAPS THERE IS hope. There are some institutions that have not succumbed to the philistine culture wars a government in search of distraction has decided to wage on us. TATE has published a number of (very) short books that seek to challenge (and reshape) how we view art. It’s doing this by refocusing our appreciation of its vast body of work through the lens of class, gender, feminism, empire etc. This is all in anticipation of a massive rehang of its work by 2023.
Nathalie Olah, whose writing looks at the intersection between politics and contemporary culture, tackles the discussion about class in art and Afua Hirsch examines the art through the lens of empire.
They’re not, by any means, the first to tackle this subject.
 It’s good to start with a reminder of the earlier perspective offered by John Berger in his seminal work, Ways of Seeing. Berger in his discussion of oil paintings takes issue with the ‘hands-off’ artificiality of so much academic analysis, with its emphasis on light, shading, composition, etc. Such an analysis, he suggests, obscures the deeper role of so many oil paintings: mere objects of possession; displays of wealth and power. Indeed, until Impressionism came along to challenge its sacred canon, the history of painting, he notes, offered a distorted visualization of history: one that pertained pretty exclusively to that of the rich and the powerful.
The poor only ever got a ‘look in’ as props (or if the were Black, as property). Afua Hitsch quotes historian Carter Goodwin Woodson that Black people were there simply to “… confer on their masters and mistresses an ‘air of luxurious wellbeing’ “

In the above expression of Britain’s colonial munificence, Thomas Jones Barker’s painting of Queen Victoria, the kneeling Black (supposedly regal) figure clearly knew his place: that of the humble, grateful servant… the forever supplicant. (The modern version of the Crown seems to have taken this idea of supplication to heart in its ‘sadness’ at the ‘independence’ first of India, then Trinidad, now Barbados and soon Jamaica. You can almost hear the whispers, “after all we’ve done for them…”)
Hirsch’s Empire offers a version of this argument: that much of European art during its many centuries of conquest has consistently sought to obscure, hide or sanitize the reality of bloody empire building. The colonial artistic gaze looked everywhere but at the core source of its wealth: slavery.
Even as the French were extolling its post Revolution narrative as a freedom fighting anti-bourgeois revolutionary people, proud of its new revolutionary museum (the Louvre) that was filled with art confiscated from the nobility, the most profound revolution of its time, in (French owned) Haiti, was, to its artists, invisible. The reality of black revolutionaries did not sit comfortably with its own self narrative.
Similarly, For two hundred years, slavery was the British Empire’s main story in town.
It produced no art! Were there no artists who dared to express outrage (and institutions who dared hang such works were they to have existed)?
“In art”, Hirsch writes, “the latent anxieties…of the colonial period…is often represented more by what is absent than what is there”.
Rather, the multiple portraits of slave owners, such as this Gainsborough portrait of the slave holding Baillie family, reveal only serenity, dignity and family values.

Berger also offered the example of this well known landscape by Gainsborough:

This, he notes, is no Rousseauesque rural nature retreat, it’s an image of property, of mastery over the land (and a reflection of the artist’s need to pander to his patrons).
For Olah, this kind of art was all about “class”; which she defines as the relationship between labour and capital. But here, ‘capital’ means more than money. It also suggests “cultural capital”. For to ascend up the class system demands the accumulation of and propensity to display such capital…to be conversant with the arts. In other words, she suggests, it’s important to broaden our understanding of the role of the arts to include their importance both as cultural signifiers and as the passport to this strata of society.
Olah points us to Stubbs. Here is one of his most famous paintings:The Haymakers.

Note the happy, healthy and spotlessly clean clothes of the workers. This was less an image of the toil and backbreaking labour of farming, more an alibi for the relentless demands of the agricultural industry. This wholesome spin on the degrading industry suggested an idea of “honourable poverty”, a means of “assuaging the guilt of the British class system”.
Or what you much call “poverty porn”
Take a look at this other, laughable, example by Henry Robert Morland.

This maid is all blissful serenity. She’s immaculate. Her skin is unblemished, having clearly never been exposed to the harshness of the sun. Her delicate touch would suggest that the iron would glide along without too much effort. These types of images, Olah observes represent the transformation of labour into a lifestyle choice. It shows not a portrait of a person (that was reserved for the monied class) but a type; an anonymous being, engaged in the performance of a task (Compared these images of task driven workers with the seated majesty of the landowners in the first example).
The little booklet does not shy away from what in Olah’s view are the modern versions of the Gainsborough’s of today: in particular those artists who have found the sweet, and highly lucrative, spot between art and commerce.
Damien Hirst, are you listening?

THE DUKE** A Pauper


THE DUKE IS Roger Mitchell’s latest and last movie. The well-known British director (Notting Hill, My Cousin Rachel, The Mother etc.) died late last year. He deserved a better farewell memory.

The story is about the theft of a famous Goya painting, the eponymous duke (or Wellington) and an old man’s quixotic desire to use the ransom from this to provide free BBC licenses to all British OAP’s. 
The movie joins a very long list of British movies that romanticize a much-loved British archetype: that of the slightly eccentric, big hearted, self-deprecating and somewhat naive charmer. For years, Hugh Grant personified this character. He’s the man (it’s always men) Brits love to root behind, just as the very, very aged audience who came along to view this movie yesterday, did.

The problem that (I assume) confronted Mitchell was that he was clearly hamstrung by the reality of the ‘true-life’ of the story. The movie is built around the quasi comedic foundations of a fun idea: “Experts and authorities confounded as eccentric pensioner heists masterpiece in Robin Hood quest to benefit others”. But these audience pleasing foundations cannot bear the weight of the story’s grim realities.
For the eccentric protagonist (Jim Broadbent) is simply a delusional old man, adrift from reality, incapable of holding down a job, in and out of prison and serially lying to his wife. She, poor despairing woman, is a maid, working her fingers to the bone to make ends meet, and none too happy with her husband’s juvenile irresponsibility. Her two sons are less than law abiding citizens.

This clash of realities results in a movie that works very hard to offer light-hearted entertainment without being able to either accommodate or transcend its darker, sadder truths.

Certainly there are some very funny moments during a courtroom drama that pits ‘us ordinary folk’ against ‘stuffy pompous authority’. (A cliched clash that’s always a crowd-pleaser). And Helen Mirren, in particular, is tremendous, as the life-hardened centre of her feckless family. Production Designer, Kristian Milstead has also done an impressive job of creating the suffocating fussiness of their shabby interiors.

But Mitchell needed to have made the artistic choice between ‘Notting Hill for geriatrics’ or ‘Family Angst for the Bafta’s crowd’.

Instead The Duke is less masterpiece, more paint by numbers.

THE DUKE. Dir: Roger Mitchell  Roger Mitchell. Writers: Richard Bean and Clive Coleman. With: Jim Broadbent. Helen Mirren. Matthew Goode (A Discovery of Witches). Anna Maxwell Martin (Line of Duty). Cinematographer: Mike Eley (The Dig). Production Designer: Kristian Milsted (Killing Eve)

PARALLEL MOTHERS****Bueno


THE CORE IDEA that energizes this latest, and by far most political, offering from Almodóvar is summed up by an Eduardo Galleano quotation at the end of the movie. In essence he/Almodóvar suggests, a nation – in this case, Spain- cannot fully realize itself until its past has been disinterred and accounted for honestly.

The story is focused on “los desaparacidos”: the tens of thousands of people rounded up and ‘disappeared’ by Franco’s soldiers. In particular, the movie centres on Janis (a radiant Penélope Cruz), a successful photographer, who is seeking to disinter the remains of her grandfather along with a few dozen other “desaparacidos” from her village. It is, through her work, her chance encounter with an expert in such matters, Arturo (Israel Elejalde), that sets the narrative in motion.

And, as you’d expect from the master storyteller, Almodóvar, the story bombs along at a rapid clip. She’s soon pregnant. He, Arturo scoots off to his ailing wife and Janis finds herself about to give birth in a room along with another single (soon to be) mom, Ana (Milena Smit), a much younger girl. They will both agonize and bond over ailing infants.

Parallel Mothers!

The title refers to more that Janis and Ana. Janis has morphed into her own family past: her mother and grandmother and great grandmother all ended up as single mothers. Indeed, the idea of parallel mothers extends to all those mothers whose sons lay hidden, buried somewhere…all those memories abruptly terminated…all those incomplete lives.

Almodóvar shoehorns this macro picture of the past, of a nation’s reckoning of its history, with the intimate human drama of Janis’ search to understand the lineage of her own newborn child. She, the child, really doesn’t look like either Janis or Arturo. Janis passes it off initially as a family resemblance with a long dead grandfather she’d never known. She knows it’s a slight of hand. Who really is the father of this child?

This mystery launches the conceit of the parallel mother into a new, and I assume, deliberately quasi telenovela direction. The honest confrontation of the historical past must be rooted in the individual’s ability to come to terms with the personal past. And so the search for the truths of the past becomes heartbreakingly immediate via a tale of love lost and recovered, of deceptions both ‘real” and theatrical, and of sudden, unexpected -and, frankly, unbelievable – homosexuality, all viewed through snapshots of the wild contrasts that exist in maternal affections.

Parallel mothers do not equate with parallel loves.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable movie. Cruz, as convincing as she always is, almost eases you over the wild improbabilities of the tale.

But the parallel stories (unearthing the historical past and coming to terms with it through the paternity of a child) are uncomfortable bedmates. Too much feels forced-fed; too often the dictates of plot undermine the dictates of character. The character of Ana and her relationship with Janis seems arbitrary and contrived.

But it’s a movie rooted in thought and in a broad interrogation of how identity and history are woven together. From this perspective, the contrivances of the plot seem irrelevant…the critic’s overly fastidious admonition.

This is, after all, Alomdóvar

Parallel Mothers written/directed: Pedro Almodóvar. Penélope Cruz. Milena Smit. Israel Elejalde. Altana Sanchez-Gijón. Cinematographer: José Luis Alcaine (The Skin I Live in)

BELFAST**** Thoughtful


BELFAST ENDS WITH a dedication to all those who stayed (during The Troubles) as well as to all those who left. It’s writer/director Kenneth Branagh’s generous, open-hearted empathy with the agonizing human toll The Troubles took on families (apart from loss of life obviously) and the divisions it wrought on the Irish nation. The embrace of these concluding words soften the ninety minutes that convincingly dramatized the breakup of the nation, wrenched by the absurdities of (religious) ideology. It turned neighbours into warring tribes (not unlike Hutu v Tutsi or Muslim v Hindu or Trumpists v Democrats).
The end coda of hope brackets an equally optimistic beginning which starts with a bright colorful swoop across the radiance and loveliness of modern day Belfast (It reminded me of Woody Allen’s wonderful cinematic homages to Manhattan).

And then colour switches to black and white and the easy -deliberately exaggerated – camaraderie of a protective neighborhood is interrupted by the tramp and threat of mob violence and the dark descent into enmity.

It’s a cleverly written movie as Branagh effortlessly knits together his astute gritty recreation of The Troubles with the tender tale of a very ‘real’, fully imagined family and the way they wrestle with the urge to escape it all (for a better life, better job, better home etc) and the gravitational inertia of home and belonging and rootedness.

Pa (Jaimie Dornan) has found a good job in England and, threatened by those who would make him choose to be friend or foe, is the apostle of escape, pretty much to anywhere….England, Canada, Australia…wherever that’s safe for his family and where there’s work to be had. Ma, his wife, (Caitriona Balfe) is, like Pa’s parents, rooted in the land, in their back yard. The city is almost a fundamental part of who they are. Departure feels like a violation.

His parents, (the ever watchable Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds) embody the city’s values, its irreverence and humour (She gets all the best lines in what is often a very funny movie). They also represent the reality of how identity ‘operates’. Pa’s and Ma’s love for Ireland, their abiding sense of being Irish’ will, like their love for their parents, endure forever, no matter where they’re living. The heart cannot be contained by the borders of geography or, for that matter, the divisions of ideology

(And of course, though this is very much a movie about Ireland, the universality of the issues it opens up can equally be applied to the agony of any Jamaican or Somalian or Syrian parent, for example, who left family behind to escape to another country offering work and the hope of a better life)

Branagh frames his story through the eyes of his young pre-teen Protestant protagonist (A charming Jude Hill) in the blush of his first romance (with a Catholic girl in his class). It’s that Romeo and Juliet love that blooms no matter the hate that surrounds it.

And he cleverly punctuates the action (carried forward entirely with the pop music of the era) with the bright colours of the pop movies the family see on TV or the cinema. (Another kind of escape). The role these movie clips play are the film’s Greek chorus commenting on the action. Thus the clash between the warring gangs of Protestants v Catholics mediated by the intruding English are reduced to a John Wayne/ Jimmy Stewart showdown. The potential journey to England is Captain Kirk on the Enterprise boldly going where no one has gone before, or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and its magical car that flies etc.

This is one of those movies that really comes alive upon introspection. It generously repays discussion and thought. And it’s worth every star given it by the Critics. But there are some movies I’m planning on seeing again even while I’m viewing them (Like West Side Story). This wasn’t one of them.

But that’s just me.

BELFAST. Written/Directed: Kenneth Branagh. With Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Belfie (Le Mans), Judi Dench, Jude Hill, Ciara’s Hinds (Red Sparrow. Munich). Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos (Murder on the Orient Express. Denial. Thor). Production Design: Jim Clay (Murder on the Orient Express. Love Actually)