ANNIHILATION** Puffed Up Nonsense


ALEX GARLAND IS the director who brought us the extraordinary Ex Machina (and also exposed the world to Alicia Vikander). Ex Machina dramatized the chilling moment known as the singularity: when the machine becomes, essentially human. Mr. Garland has returned with his new movie: Annihilation.

It’s a movie with a problem: dismal audiences in the US and straight to Netflix here in Europe.
Why?

Annihilation submerges us into a world…an idea…where cellular reproduction…DNA…begins to go berserk. Is this a frightening take on what may be in store for humanity as it continues to muck with nature? Is man (even unconsciously) pulled toward self-destruction…as part of our human condition?

The story starts with the sudden and unexpected return of Kane (Oscar Isaac). He’s been gone for over a year on a super-secret mission. But now, much to the shock of his partner, biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), here he is: discombobulated, unaware of time and hemorrhaging. Garland pulls you deeper and deeper into the mystery of his disappearance. Kane was one of several soldiers who had dared to enter The Shimmer: a vast blurry force field that is slowly growing and that is proving impervious to all attempts as understanding it. Lena’s, perhaps guilt-laden, search for an antidote to her partner’s critical condition leads her to volunteer to a small (suicide?) science expedition: four (female) scientists who are prepared to brave entering The Shimmer.

Once in The Shimmer, things immediately begin to go awry. After a week in, the team feel they’ve been there for mere hours; they encounter strange beautiful, mutant growths that cling to walls and trees; other-worldly beasts attack out of nowhere, slowly picking them off. Why would Kane have signed up for what he must have known was a suicide mission? Similarly, why did Lena and the other members of the team sign up? They too must all have known they’d never return.

Garland layers mystery upon mystery and keeps turning up the heartbeats of tension, notch by agonizing notch.

But here’s the problem: all this layered tension, the fascinating build-up really has nowhere to go. The story does not build to some moment of insightful revelation. About an hour into the movie, the story begins to sag. Even Natalie Portman, bringing her most “whatthefuckisgoingon” face can’t contain the rising bathos. What began as a thought-provoking exploration of the way we mutually affect/infect others with our burdens and ‘sins’ runs aground with a director who seems to have become as lost as his plot and his characters.

Basically nothing begins to make sense. One rule of sci-fi (any fiction for that matter) is that there be enough credibility to drive belief. We’ve got to believe that no matter how fantastical, these characters could be real people experiencing these strange things. None of this pertains in Annihilation. As the questions mount (Is there a thematic reason why all the scientists are women? Why aren’t there more chimera creatures? Why didn’t they camp in the obvious secure place in The Shimmer?), everything soon begins to feel as artificial and trumped-up as the faux forest they inhabit.

The story slowly slips from “What’s going to happen next?” to “Where’s this story going?” And the answer, sadly, was a resolute, “Nowhere”

Garland seems to be a terribly thoughtful and talented director. Based on one movie. Let’s hope he’s not going to turn into that other one- note wonder, M. Night Shyamalan

 

ANNIHILATION. Dir: Alex Garland. Screenplay: Alex Garland (based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer).  With: Natalie Portman. Jennifer Jason Leigh. Benedict Wong. Oscar Isaac. Cinematographer: Rob Hardy (Ex Machina). Production Designer: Mark Digby (Ex Machina)

 

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THE SHAPE OF WATER***** Weird and Wonderful


A LONELY, INHIBITED, sexually frustrated woman develops a feeling of human empathy, which morphs into love for an extra-terrestrial, aquatic creature. “The Shape of Water” is a bold, weird fable of love and its opposite number, hate.

A compelling Sally Hawkins (“Paddington”) who miraculously combines mousy spinsterish reserve with raw sexuality is Elisa Esposito. She is a shy, mute cleaner whose lowly (social) stature and narrow circle of friends masks a huge generosity of spirit, and a stubborn fearlessness. Her opposite number is the always watchable Michael Shannon as Richard Strickland (notice the name: strict land), a dark, tortured soul, incapable of love and, like his severed fingers, rotting from within.

As her unexpected love for this strange creature blossoms, his all-consuming hatred for it deepens…as if, like the balance between matter and antimatter, love’s life-affirming power needs its balance of hate’s destructiveness.

It is clear from the very beginning that Elisa and her gay, ostracized friend (Richard Jenkins) live slightly off-centre lives… as if they’re both waiting for something to happen. Hers is one of routine and repetition: get up with the alarm, run a bath, masturbate, boil an egg, drift off to sleep on the morning bus, clock in, clean the floors of the vast cavernous mysterious government research centres where she works and return home.

His too is also one of routine, expressed by his by-the-book regimentation.

Their routines are broken by the arrival of a large, sealed tank containing a creature captured somewhere in South America.

Both Elisa and Richard respond to the creature with the curiosity it commands. Both want to know more about this strange being. But whereas her -human-curiosity leads her to try to understand and communicate with the creature (And that she is mute affords her a means of communication unconstrained by language), his – institutional- curiosity (He is a mere agent of an implacable and amoral army general) pushes him toward dissection and murder.

Her communication with the creature is all gesture. (Actions speak louder than words). And the gesture that soothes his savage beast is the offer of an egg. The symbolism of a woman offering him her eggs is not misunderstood. Their growing love is liberating (She must free the creature from its chains), life changing and life enhancing. And ultimately (for this is no child’s fairy story) sexual. The two become one, floating in a world of their own.

Thus it is with love…it is as wondrous as it is rare (They are the only ones in the story to find love)

But for him, the creature is the ultimate “other”…the “other” that, because it is not understood, is therefore threatening. It doesn’t look like him (He muses at one point that God looks human…or rather, God looks like a White man) and therefore must be tortured, chained up and eliminated. This is the only way institutions understand how to deal with “the other”, be they aquatic creatures or, for that matter, Mexicans, Blacks, Muslims…whatever.

But the pleasure of “The Shape of Water” isn’t just the story; it’s the telling of it. From the moment when the titles begin immersing us in its floating, undulating world of water, to the strongly accented shadows (of Dan Lausten’s cinematography) that shape every carefully orchestrated frame, director Guillermo del Toro conjures up an unique and very distinct world. That said, I felt at times that I could have been watching some lost Orson Wells movie. The texture of the movie has that same sense of visual craftsmanship and cinematic drama.

Sylvain Arseneault’s sound design also makes its presence notably felt…almost as though, in compensation for Elisa’s muteness, del Toro needed to give a clearly articulate aural voice to the movie. The sound comes across as a series of communicating layers: the clip clop of hurrying footsteps that synchronize with the thuds and clanks of machinery, the hoots and screeches of the outside world, the bubbling, gurgles of whooshing water…all knitted together by Alexandre Desplat’s subtle score.

So, was this worth “best movie” accolades? It is a masterful piece of pure cinematic bliss. And so, well deserving of its laurels. Personally I prefer the quieter, more tangibly real movies such as “Lady Bird” and the unrewarded “The Florida Project”.

But, hey, I’m not complaining.
THE SHAPE OF WATER: Director/Writer: Guillermo del Toro (“Crimson Peak”). With: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spenser, Richard Jenkins. Cinematography: Dan Lausten (“John Wick Chapter 2”, “Crimson Peak”). Production Designer: Paul D. Austerberry (“”Pompeii 2014”, “The Twilight Saga”). Composer: Alexandre Desplat (“The Twilight Saga”, “Harry Potter”)

 

RED SPARROW** Fly in the other direction


THE “SPARROWS” REFERRED to in this entertaining (i.e Jennifer Lawrence in “a pretty little nothing you’re almost wearing” as 007 once commented), if godsmackingly silly movie, are young, patriotic Russians trained in the art of seduction. Or, as our heroine, Dominika Egorova, describes it, “whore school”. The action is set in modern times, though it has the feel of a 60’s spy thriller; as if the writers (Justin Haythe from a book by Jason Matthews) had suddenly read about Christine Keeler and John Profumo (Even the fuzzy dingy lighting of Jo Willem’s cinematography complements the dated, History Channel look of the film)

“Red Sparrow” is John le Carre by way of Harold Robbins.

Dominika was a much lauded ballerina, who, after a tragic accident and in need of money to support her invalid mother (you can hear the violin strings quivering in the background) is seduced by her Spymaster uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) into this line of work. From Dominika to Dominatrix in a heartbeat. Her seductive prowess leads her to an American agent (Joel Edgerton) who is in league with a Russian mole. Who’s the mole? Will Dominika’s manifest charms seduce the information from him or must we endure seeing his skin being slowly peeled from his body? Or is the entire plot a long-winded version of the cliché about revenge being a dish best served cold?

And do we really care?

Director Francis Lawrence (“The Hunger Games” trilogy) never manages to raise a tremor of tension but he does use his movie’s key asset -Jennifer Lawrence’s goddess-perfect body – to full effect. That said, she, like the rest of the (entirely Russian-free) A list cast (Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hinds and Jeremy Lions) seem borne under…freighted with a crippling weight of ennui. They all read their lines without stumbling over them. Or giggling. And that must rate as some measure of achievement. Indeed, the only displays of what could pass for human emotion are when people scream as they’re tortured.

Sex and pain. Nudity and body parts. Welcome to this year’s first SM movie.

 

RED SPARROW. Dir: Francis Lawrence. Screenplay: Justin Haythe (“The Lone Ranger”). With: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Ciarán Hinds). Cinematographer: Jo Williams (“Hunger Games” trilogy). Production Designer: Maria Djuekovic (“The imitation Game”, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”)

 

 

LADY BIRD***** Superb


OH WHAT A wonderful movie! “Lady Bird” is an intimate, honest, carefully observed story about that moment when the child emerges, fighting and kicking, as an individual…no longer just an expression of a parent.

“Lady Bird” is the name our eponymous protagonist, Christine, gives herself. She desperately wants to be a distinct, unique being; one free from the nagging dictates of her mom, for whom “love” and “control” are inextricably linked. The ‘crisis’ that the movie explores is that moment when the child’s need for freedom (wonderfully demonstrated when Ladybird throws herself out of her mother’s moving car) so easily becomes a zero sum game, where a victory for the one results in a terrible sense of loss for the other.

The irony in “Lady Bird” is that mother and daughter are quite clearly cut from the same cloth. They look alike (director Greta Gerwig is at pains to morph the profile of the one into the other to make her point) and they sound alike. But the moment must come when the assertion of self has to take precedence over the loving symbiosis that binds mother (and father) and child together. And it’s this moment that Director Gerwig (seems to) sit back and observe from a distance. She simply allows this domestic drama to unfold with seemingly little authorial prodding. She encourages us to engage with and identify the many multiple sparks of recognition that make this such a fascinating movie

There’s not a wrong note in the movie…which always shies away from Hollywood hysteria and refuses to overdramatize the everyday confrontations and crises of growing up and going away. Lady Bird’s schoolgirl crushes, her mock-heroic first sexual encounter, her (mainly) love (sometimes) hate relationship with her mother, all feel real.

We’ve all been there.

Oscar nominee Saoirse (pronounced Shear-sea) Ronan (“Brooklyn”) is just tremendous as Lady Bird. Her performance is quiet, understated and fully realized. There’s not an ‘acterly’ gesture in her performance. The same can be said of fellow Oscar nominee Laurie Metcalf whose portrayal beautifully balances the outside mien of the often stern, sturdy, tough, breadwinner with the private heart-break of any mom grieving over the loss of her child and the birth of the adult.

Greta Gerwig, who wrote the brilliant “Frances Ha” has only directed one minor production before (back in 2008). She’s clearly a major new ‘Indie’ force to be reckoned with. And what a pity a movie like this (honest, unpretentious, insightful, “real”), along with the absolutely under-appreciated “The Florida Project”, isn’t more lauded than the typical bloated, rah-rah-rah excesses of “Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour”.

 

Lady Bird. Dir. (and writer): Greta Girwig. With: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts. Cinematographer: Sam Levy (“Frances Ha”)

 

BLACK PANTHER** Raise Your Awareness. Lower Your Expectations


THERE CAN BE no question of the sociological significance of this movie. Despite the best intentions of Sidney Poitier and the Huxtable Family, the Black cinema narrative is one that has co-joined them with drug dealers, crooks, police captains and slaves. Along comes the fantasy country of Wakanda that’s far more developed than any other country; that’s led by a strong, just, fearless (and attractive) king; and where everybody else is gorgeous and gorgeously attired. More than this, the women are robustly powerful. They kick ass.

Take that Trump!

If for so long, the (now ascendant, populist) White American narrative of Blacks is one that couldn’t quite get their mental picture out of the rut of slavery, civil rights and “why are they complaining?”, there has always been that reassuring Black fantasy that “Once we were kings”

So kudos on the producers (who took a $200m risk), kudos to the writers, to Marvel etc. for countering the narrative…and boldly going where no movie (that’s not Blaxploitation) has gone before. Here’s an image of the Black person as beautiful and imbued with a deep aura of power and honor.

What a pity that the vehicle for this historical recasting of image is such crap.

Here the characters are as leaden as the language.
The story, riffing on a highly relevant theme of loyalty (Is it owed to the person or the institution?) works itself into a fretted family drama (now becoming a Marvel trope) that’s silly and childish.
There is an interesting question posed: if Wakanda has all this magic power, why doesn’t it use its power to liberate all Black people? But this isn’t Black Power. It’s Black Panther. And like the crew of Star Trek, the mission is to avoid interference.
The action is certainly very kinetic…balletic even. But it never reaches the level of the adrenalin rush you expect from, say, a good car chase.

This movie is a great and necessary crowd pleaser. It’s wonderful to have such a big-ticket event pull together so much strong Black (and female) talent (not only the cast and director, but also the production designer, cinematographer, costume designer etc). And let’s hope that this embryonic renaissance of visible, celebrated Black talent will blossom

“Black Panther” represents a clear cultural shift. But as a work of cinema, it’s just not a very good one.

 

BLACK PANTHER. Dir: Ryan Coogler (“Creed: The Rocky Legacy”). With: Chadwick Boseman (“Marshall”) Michael B Jordan (“Creed: The Rocky Legacy”) Lupita Nyong’o (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) Danai Guira (“Treme”) Martin Freeman (“Sherlock) Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”). Written by: Coogler + Joe Robert Cole (“Amber Lake”). Production Designer: Hannah Beachler (“Moonlight”). Cinematographer: Rachel Morrison (“Mudbound”). Costume Designer: Ruth E Carter (“Selma”)

 

 

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE****


IN THIS FRIGHTENING look at the (parlous) state of American democracy, authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt examine those critical factors that they conclude have been common to all modern autocratic states.

Since the end of the Cold War, they note, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals but by elected governments themselves. Elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Venezuela, Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Ukraine.
“Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box”. Often they note, there’s no single moment – no coup, suspension of the constitution etc – that may set off society’s alarm bells. Democracy’s erosion is imperceptible.

They layer this framework on the present US administration and wonder: how close is the US to those other autocratic states? What happened that the country should be where it now is? And they hazard a guess, based on their reading of other countries, where the road ahead lies.

The framework they use (to identify the typical modus operandi of autocrats) was first mapped out by Juan Linz in his seminal book of 1978, “The Breakdown Of Democratic Regimes”. Building on Linz’ work, they developed a set of four warning signs.

(1) The rejection of democratic rules of the game, such as neutralizing or cancelling elections or the constitution, banning or restricting basic civil rights (such as the right to vote) or undermining the legitimacy of elections by refusing to accept credible electoral results
(2) Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents… by baselessly branding them as criminals, foreign agents or threats to national security
(3) Toleration or encouragement of violence…thru ties to armed gangs, the encouragement of mob attacks on opponents, the tactic endorsement of violence by their supporters and their approval or praise of other political violence in other countries
(4) Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents including the media: as seen thru examples such as the expansion of libel or defamation laws, threats and punitive actions against rival parties, civil society or the media, and the praise of other government’s repressive measures.

It’s not a stretch to see how easily Trump fits the playbill. Even before his inauguration, he tested positive on all four measures:

  • A weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game (when he questioned the legitimacy of the electoral process and even suggested he might not accept the results of the election)
  • He consistently insisted that there would be voter fraud and that millions of illegal immigrants and dead people would be mobilized to vote for Hillary Clinton (so much so that before the election, 73% of Republicans believed that the election could be stolen from him.)
  • He denied the legitimacy of his opponents, first with Obama and his “birther” campaign and then with Clinton who he branded a criminal (with his rally cry of “Lock her up”)
  • Like the Blackshirts in Italy and the Brownshirts in Germany, he tolerated and encouraged violence (as he shouted at one of his rallies, “If you see anybody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them would ya…Just knock the hell out of them. I promise you I will pay the legal fees.”) He even issued a veiled endorsement of violence against Hillary Clinton when he said, “if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks…Although the Second Amendment people – maybe there is, I don’t know”
  • The final warning sign (apart from his praise of other dictators such as Putin and Duterte) was his readiness to curtail the civil liberties of rivals and critics, such as his promise to arrange for a special prosecutor to investigate and jail Hillary after the election and his threat to punish unfriendly media (“among the most dishonest group of people I’ve ever met”) by opening up the libel laws to bankrupt them.

So what happened? How did a clearly visible autocrat make it all the way to the elections and then the Presidency? Where did the party fail in its traditional role as a steward of democracy?

Democracy, they note, is, in every country, heavily dependent for its continuity on “Gatekeeping institutions” which are aimed at eliminating dictator-leaning candidates at an early stage. These are supported by a series of core shared norms and codes of behavior…what they call “the guardrails”. These, more than constitutions are democracy’s foundations.

Trump was the most successful but not the first extremist to woo and win voters’ afffections.

Such figures have long dotted the landscape of American politics. Men such as Charles Coughlin, an anti-Semitic Catholic priest; Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long (whose intimidation and bribery of the state’s legislature, the press and anyone who opposed him saw him regarded as “the first true dictator out of American soil”); billionaire Henry Forde, widely admired as a plain spoken businessman and who the Nazi government had awarded with the Grand Cross of the German Eagle; all American hero Charles Lindbergh, an advocate of racial purity (who was also awarded a Nazi Medal of Honor…by Herman Goring); Senator Joseph McCarthy whose blacklisting, censorship and book banning, all in the name of protecting America, earned him the approval of nearly half of the electorate; and governor George Wallace who mixed racism with populist appeals to working class whites’ sense of victimhood and economic anger.
None of these men made it through the filter of their party’s powerful insiders and nomination systems.

This changed after the debacle of the Democratic Convention in Chicago and the nomination of Hubert Humphrey in 1968. What emerged was a system of binding presidential primaries (and the Democrats’ undemocratic dependence on “superdelegates”). Though these primaries ostensibly gave the power to party members, delegates depended on their passage through the “invisible primary” (i.e the insider allies of donors, newspaper editors, interest groups, state-level politicians etc) to be considered for nomination. This system successfully kept out the crazies (such as Pat Robinson, Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes). But the dramatic increase in the availability of outside money and the explosion of alternative media, along with the gung-ho radicalism of Fox News, tilted the scales away from ‘party-blessed’ establishment politicians to the rich, the famous and the extreme. Witness the candidacies of fringe politicians such as Michelle Bachman, Herman Cain (The Godfather Pizza CEO) and Bernie Sanders. Sanders was cut off at the knees by Democratic insiders. But the Republican party elders were helpless in blocking the unendorsed outsider Donald Trump.

The long successful barrier of Gatekeeping Institutions had failed. Mainstream politicians compounded this institutional failure by doing nothing. Key Republicans sat back and watched with horror as Trump shredded the usual norms…but Party ideology trumped any fidelity to the idea of American democracy. This did not have to be the case. Levitsky and Ziblatt point to other similarly endangered democracies when politicians put the rule of democracy above that of party politics. For example in 2016, Austrian conservatives backed the Green Party candidate to block the election of the far right (led by Norbert Hofer); in France, Francois Fillon urged his members to vote for Emmanuel Macron to keep Marine Le Pen out etc.

But in the US, there was a “collective abdication”. Some Republican leaders refused to endorse Trump. But none were prepared to endorse Hillary. They all simply fell in line, based on the misguided belief that the authoritarian could be controlled and on an “ideological collusion”: the rationalization that the authoritarian’s agenda sufficiently overlapped with the party’s values.

If the Party’s Gatekeeping role failed, what of the broader guardrails that protect democracy? These the book notes are:

  • mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals;
  • and forbearance or the understanding that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives.

These the authors contend are the only real restraints that prohibit autocrats from using the very programs that define democracy against it.

For constitutions and the safeguards they offer, though lofty, tend to be vague, ambiguous and can easily, legally be side stepped. The clearest examples are those many, mainly Latin American, countries whose Constitutions and even electoral systems are modeled, almost to the word, on the US constitution and model. Such diligence did not prevent electoral fraud in Argentina in 1930 and 1943, or President Marcos’ use of martial law or Brazil’s Gertulio Vargas’ legal maneuvers to stay in power.
Strong democracies depend on these strong, often unwritten democratic norms of mutual toleration and forbearance. When these norms breakdown, so does democracy.

In every case of democratic breakdown – from Franco, Hitler and Mussolini to Marcos, Pinochet, Putin, Chavez and Erdogan- the justification for the consolidation of power has been accomplished by the replacement of mutual toleration for a norm where opponents are labeled as existential threats.

Similarly, the second critical guardrail of institutional forbearance or “the action of restraining from exercising a legal right” collapses when parties engage in “constitutional hardball”… when the intent is to permanently defeat one’s partisan rivals – no matter the effect on democracy.

When Presidents and parties view (elected) opponents as mortal enemies; when politics becomes a zero sum game (where for one side to win the other must lose), then the mutual toleration, respect and forbearance necessary for the compromises of the political process turn politics into warfare.

In recent times, Nixon never embraced norms of mutual toleration. He viewed sections of the public as opponents and the press as enemies…threats to the nation. He told his aid H. R. Haldeman, “We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy”. But then the guardrails held.

By the time US politics had reached the stage when in 2016, for the first time in US history, the Senate refused to even consider an elected president’s nominee for the Supreme Court, the guardrails had well and truly been dismantled.

The key point they note is that Trump’s autocratic tendencies found fertile ground in the no-holds-barred divisiveness of American politics where your opponent is your enemy and compromise is a dirty word. This divisiveness, a sharp tact away from the civility and mutual respect that tends to be the underpinning of democracies, was sharply escalated after Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America.

Gingrich exacerbated the already increasingly hostile nature of US political debate to the level of virulent partisanship that defines its present war-like norm.
“You are fighting a war. It is a war for power” he said. He questioned his Democratic rivals’ patriotism and accused them of trying to “destroy our country”. As House Speaker, his ideological aversion to compromise and his willingness to obstruct legislation spelt the end of that body’s traditional collegial combativeness.
Politics had become warfare; the use of the filibuster and later (in Bill Clinton’s case) impeachment and the debt limit had become weaponised.
This intense partisanship meant the beginning of government dysfunction.
And it escalated markedly under Obama’s presidency. Gingrich called him “the first Anti-American president”. Egged on by Fox News (whose “no compromise” views viciously attacked any moderate Republican) as well as by Trump and the Tea Party movement, 37% of Republicans believed that he was not born in the US.

Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude that the intensity of partisanship has meant that being a Democrat or Republican has become not just an affiliation but an identity. They identify that the seeds of this mutual distrust predate Gingrich. They point to the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Act. Their thesis is that until then both parties were “big tent” parties. They were divided on issues such as taxes, spending, government regulations etc. But they overlapped on the potentially explosive issue of race. Both parties contained factions that were for as well as against civil rights.

It was the Civil Rights Act that redefined the parties: Democrats became the party of civil rights and Republicans became the party of the (white) status quo. Conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans (who in the past were able to broker compromises) gradually disappeared. Add to this the huge influx of new Latino immigrants and the Democrats have become a party of ethnic minorities while the Republican Party has remained almost entirely a party of whites (90%).

The other issue that further sundered any overlapping of the parties was Roe v Wade. The Evangelicals, embraced by Reagan, flocked to the Republicans (76% identify as Republican) pushing that party to positions of anti-abortion, anti-gay Rights and support for school prayer…even as the Democrats have become an increasingly secular party.

The two parties are now deeply divided over race and religion – the two most deeply polarizing of issues…which tend to generate the greatest intolerance and hostility. From a Republican perspective, well aware of the growing percentage of non white voters, and aghast at the presence of a non white (and therefore not a real American) president, the need to “Take our Country Back” set the terrain for a populist to “Make America Great Again”, even if this meant (further) trampling on democratic norms.

They write, chillingly:
“If, twenty five years ago, someone had described to you country in which candidates threatened to lock up their rivals, political opponents accused the government of stealing the election or establishing a dictatorship, and parties used their legislative majorities to impeach presidents and steal Supreme Court seats, you might have thought of Ecuador or Romania. You probably would not have thought of the United States”

The authors note that Trump’s first year in power follows the archetype of power consolidation as evidenced by Chavez, Fujimori and Erdogan:

  • Capture the referees
  • Sideline the key players
  • Rewrite the rules to tilt the playing field against opponents.

He’s demonstrated striking hostility toward the referees – law enforcement, intelligence, ethics agencies and the courts by firing those who stood up to him (FBI Director Comey and US Attorney Preet Bharara), attacking them (He called the judge who ruled against his initial travel ban as a “so-called judge”) and even threatening to use the FBI to go after Democrats; or by simply bribing them (evidenced by his huge tax discounts to the powerful and wealthy, who can now shut up and count their cash)

He continues to try to sideline the free press by branding them “fake news”, “enemy of the American people”, pledging to “open up the libel laws” and “challenge the license” of NBC and other networks. In similar vein he’s tried to punish critics by withholding funding from “sanctuary cities”.

He’s created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity run by one Kris Kodach (described as America’s “premier advocate of vote suppression”). The aim ostensibly is to cut down on voting fraud (of which there’s none) but with the real mission of making it harder for low-income minority citizens to vote. The new laws which mandating strict voter ID’s favour whites five times more than blacks, and will in effect disenfranchise over 21 million Americans. To date fifteen states have adopted these laws.

Trump’s norm breaking has been breathtaking and groundbreaking.

  • Among these are the long-standing norms of separating private and public affairs, such as those governing nepotism and financial conflicts of interest.
  • He continues to question the integrity of the American electoral process (84% of Republicans believe “meaningful amount” of fraud has occurred)
  • Continues to attack Hillary Clinton and Obama
  • Brazenly lies (only 17% of his statements have been classified as true)
  • Has abandoned any presence of respect for the media (more than 50% of Republicans now favour shutting down critical publications)
  • And routinely bullies and insults anyone he chooses including foreign heads of (friendly) states.

So far, some of his more egregious anti-democratic attempts (such as packing the FBI with loyalists or blocking the Mueller investigation) have been thwarted. But the authors are concerned. Presently his popularity is very low. But with continued improvements of the already strong economy, this can quickly change. And should there be any crisis triggered by war or terrorism, Trump like every other authoritarian leader will exploit it fully, “using it to attack political opponents and restrict redoes Americans take for granted. In our view, this scenario represents the greatest danger facing American democracy today”

Chilling words indeed

A Passage to India


Our last visit to India was up north: Rajasthan…a place overflowing with the palaces and pomp of ancient Mughal might…cheek by jowl with squalor and crushing poverty. Now, this passage to India saw us drift south, from chic Mumbai to the green forests and calm backwaters of Kerala,where there’s obviously poverty; but we never noticed any squalor. This was a region (mainly Christian, run by the Communist Party) that felt vibrant and energized and forward thinking. The people we met were unfailingly charming.

Colonial Spain built churches and universities. Colonial Britain built post offices and railway stations. And what a glorious place this is. Formerly the Victoria Terminus. It was built in 1887 at the heyday of Imperial Raj to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. The inside does not live up to the outside

Gateway to India
A beautiful, marvelously nonfunctional piece of architecture built in 1924 as an entranceway fitting the stature of the Viceroys. It simply stands there, not having to justify its existence and daring you not to be awed (at the beautiful folly of it all)


In these concrete troughs, 27 families control all the hotel and hospital washing of Mumbai. Here your clothes are attacked with uncommon vigor (all dirt, stains and smells flee in terror) and then ironed with lead heavy irons heated by burning coconut husks.

 

During its period of maritime adventurism, around the fourteen hundreds, the Chinese (whose navy at the time exceeded 3500 vessels) came to Kochi. They found nothing they could possible want. But left an unique style of fishing. These nets are slowly lowered and the fish easily scooped out. Though when I helped pull up the net, we only netted a few sad specimens, too tired to escape. Later via Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese arrived, and took everything they could. They did however leave the recipe for vindaloo.

 

Cooled by the breezes off the Arabian Sea and shaded by a ceiling of tapestries, this is definitely not London

 

 

Thattekad
Up, away from the coast at the cooler foothills of the Western Ghat, multiple lakes and water holes framed by a dense cover of an unending forest are a great place for birdwatching.


We watched said birds. And even saw an ODKF (come on, we all know that’s the very rare Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher). But the damned birds refused to pose.


This is a common bird that hung out in the tea plantation we stayed in. In this largely dry state, we later learned to ask for booze as “Special Tea” or “Pop Water”

 

The auto equivalent of the Love Boat. No doubt

 

Munnar
From tea to shining tea. These seas of teas are everywhere. Munnar is one of three tea growing regions of India. It’s hilly and cool and where the Brits, tired of looting India, escaped the heat. White tea (absolutely tasteless) we learned is the cure for any ailment you’ve ever had or likely to get. We stocked up.

 

Periyar
The Periyar Tiger reserve is over 950 square kilometres. No tiger has been seen here in living memory. Though occasionally herds of elephant have been sighted. We saw their dung though (trained animal spotters that we are) and lots of jumping monkeys

Alleppey
The so-called Venice of India isn’t quite that, but these comfortable houseboats (called kettuvalloms…and that look like Bilbo Baggins’ river transport) that glide slowly past rice paddies and mango studded trees are a great way to chill out and spend a night. Even better when the driver locates a (barely) cold beer.

Kovalam
The beach destination for reddened, over cooked Europeans. But with a few wonderful restaurants like this one: tables perched on the breezy sea wall, built to separate the shore from the restless waves.

Trivandrum
This tiered edifice is the gopuram or gatehouse tower of Shri Padmanabhaswamy: a fabulously carved, gold plated temple. It encloses a holy sanctuary – forbidden to non Hindus – where, a few years ago, a long sealed vault (guarded by a mythic serpent) was opened. It revealed $1B worth of jewels and diamonds. Forbes feels there are $1T more wealth hidden within its many still sealed chambers. All protected by the serpent. Indiana where are you?

 

Chennai.

Crowded. Noisy. Chaotic.
Another fabulous gopuram, the Kapaleeshwarar Temple with 2000+ carvings tell of Shiva’s anger at Parvati his consort who he turned into a peacock until she learned to worship him as he deserved. He turned his girlfriend into a male animal. Not even Zeus was that mean

 

About 55k south of Chennai are a series of extraordinary rock carved monoliths in Mamallapuram (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). They date from the 7th century, many hewn from single stones. Simply awesome

One of the five Rathas (or temple chariots): a huge monolith dedicated to mythic heroes

The Shore Temple
As it says, it’s (almost) on a beach; built in the 7th century and dedicated to Lord Shiva and Vishnu

 

A few miles north is the Tiger’ Cave: a Magnificent shrine carved into rock…part of an archaeological complex revealed to the world after the tsunami of 2004 that killed 10,000 people.