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”)

 

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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.

 

PHANTOM THREAD***** Oscars all stitched up


DANIEL DAY LEWIS is compellingly watchable as Reynolds Woodcock, a celebrated 50’s fashion designer, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s (The Master, There Will be Blood) fabulous, multilayered story that knits together the symbiotic relationship between creativity and (almost OCD-like) control. Day Lewis’ character is a fussy, fastidious, controlling, easily angered artist whose asexual, effete airs and God complex alienate him from people and desensitise him from their feelings.

In fewer words, he’s a shit. But he’s a brilliant shit whose obsession with perfection drives a couture that aims not simply to make his chosen coterie of patrons look better but feel better about themselves. In his designs, they become, even for a fleeting moment, paragons of perfection. It’s as if his gowns (these creations were far more than mere “dresses”) – in which were stitched the phantom thread of hidden messages – enveloped its wearers with all the hopes and dreams and ambition of its creator.

The only forces reining him in, ensuring he maintain some semblance of social grace, are his frightening, controlling business manager/sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville) and the ghost of his long dead mother, cursed somehow by the wedding dress he made her when he was sixteen. Ms. Manville, with a pale mask-like face, drained of emotion and blood gives a performance almost as magnetically commanding as Day Lewis’.

It is into this claustrophobic world (most of the story is played out in the grand, if stifling, multi-room house that is at once home, show room, atelier and of course visible expression of its owner’s heart) comes Alma (Vicky Krieps). She is a slightly clumsy, affectless, elegantly beautiful waitress he comes across in a seaside hotel. Having only recently ditched his last lover/muse, Woodcock is immediately smitten. The artist and craftsman in him immediately recognise her potential to re-inspire his creativity. The man and lover follow much later. He charms her into accompanying him back to London; and his first act is to measure her near naked body with Cyril, his sister, sitting at his side noting all the measurements.

Woodcock approves of her shape: “perfect” he notes. But Alma worries aloud to Cyril, “my neck is too long…my breasts are too small…my hips are too large”. “Not at all,” Cyril replies, “you’re just his type”. The artist’s search for perfection has found its muse.

But though they may have recorded every inch of her, they fail to take her measure. After her initial obeisance (She learns how to butter her bread, cut her toast and eat in a manner that does not upset his rarified sensibilities…and his creativity) she slowly begins to assert herself. She’s a woman, not an abstract muse. And she refuses to yield to his obsessive need to perfectly shape and control his surroundings, of which she’s merely a part. Her self-assertion, her own need to exercise some sort of control parallels her involvement with his art. She becomes both his creation as well as the most steadfast defender of it. And there’s nothing an artists loves more than the pretty acolyte who worships his creativity. Slowly their one-way love becomes a two way romance. It is a (literally) poisonous romance where genuine mutual affection and passion seems to be anchored only by the electricity of the control each has over the other and the dependency that results.

Perhaps Anderson is suggesting that the antisocial, imperious control demanded of art, has its same roots in the need for control demanded of true love. They’re both fundamentally dependent upon the earthy vitality, the potentially poisonous drug of passion and chaos, for its essential sustenance and growth. Chaos, control…and love, like the two halves of Woodcock’s large home, may be at the very heart of the creative process.

From the moment we’re introduced to Woodcock to the very last frame, this is a movie that involves us in its world through the detailed intensity of its observation. We follow the director’s close, intimate lens as it focuses in on bruised, needle-damaged fingers threading those needles, caressing and lovingly stitching shapeless fabric into perfectly formed confections that ennoble and enhance their wearers. We tag along with the lens as it circles and lingers on Woodcock’s objects of desire: the neck, the arms, the lips of Alma. Anderson balances the minutia of these “observations” with the broader swoop of crowded rooms, the unseemly crush of wealthy society. We feel Woodcock and Alma’s distaste for a party crowd in a beautifully choreographed tableaux that morphs quickly from revelry to drunken riot; and their shared contempt for a society grand dame who, undeserving of his creation, passes out wearing one of his gowns.

When we relinquish control, we become animals.

Anderson, who was also his own director of photography, has shot the whole thing with the kind of subtle golden light that gives the increasingly surreal proceedings a kind of faux glamour. And the impeccable style of costume designer Mark Bridges (Jason Bourne, Captain Phillips) offers just the right patina to the mood of monied success, nicely undercut by Johnny Greenwood’s dark, brooding Dvorak-like score.

We return to Day Lewis’s performance. It is a towering one. His Woodcock is really a dreadful person, but we can’t stop watching him. In him, Day Lewis has created one of the memorable figures of the cinema. Let’s hope the Oscars recognize this.

 

PHANTOM THREAD. Dir/Writer/Cinematographer: Paul Thomas Anderson. With: Daniel Day Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Leslie Manville. Production Designer: Mark Tildesley (Snowdon, T2 Trainspotting)

 

 

DARKEST HOUR*** Shines no new light


ACCORDING TO THIS telling, Winston Churchill not only stood down the massed ranks of aristocrats and his own Tory party (ready to make a deal with Hitler at the drop of a hat), but he found his resolve thanks to a chance (and entirely fabricated) encounter with ‘ordinary’ people… who were prepared to fight to the last person. Darkest Hour condenses the drama of the war to a few critical weeks of crisis when Britain was facing a massacre at Dunkirk, had failed to secure the involvement of the Americans and the real threat of a German invasion was imminent.

It’s a superb piece of storytelling complemented by an outstanding piece of acting, all gloriously shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis). It leaves you cheering at the end and would be typical nationalistic jingoism if it weren’t essentially so very true.

The Churchill we’re introduced to is an insufferable alcoholic. He’s abusive, short tempered, eccentric and beholden to no party ideology and to no one, other than his stoic wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). But he also has a clear sightedness and an understanding of the arc of history that, perhaps justified his boorish self-belief…his refusal to yield to anyone.

Director Joe Wright (Atonement) and his writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) seem to suggest that his (internal) enemies could see no further than Churchill the curmudgeonly, eccentric drunk. It was the other side of Churchill that won the war: Churchill the inspiring self-confident leader; the one who found the resolve and the conviction to rise to the occasion and face down the onrushing panzer divisions of the Third Reich.

Churchill not only found the resolve he needed, but the language of persuasion. As one of his thwarted opponents mutters after the “fight them on the beaches” speech, “Churchill has found his words and has sent them in to battle”. Wright threads the theme of language and persuasion throughout the narrative. Churchill’s eloquence and his way with words are, it is suggested, central to his thought process. He wrestles and tugs at language, with his stenographer, Elizabeth (Lily James), gamely following along, until he arrives at both verbal and intellectual precision.

The brilliance of Gary Oldman’s portrayal is that he exaggerates Churchill’s flat delivery just enough to make it dramatically compelling, even as he flits between his character’s two faces illustrating how the one energized the other. For it was in his drunk abrasiveness that Churchill seemed to underscore the resolve to win over his doubters and fill his people with the courage they would need to outlast the blitz.

The problem I had with the movie though is that it all felt a bit smug.

This was plucky Blighty ready to fight them on the beaches and in the fields; led by, let’s face it: God. In one farcical scene on the ‘tube’ where the ORDINARY PERSON is seen in direct contrast with Churchill’s feckless War Cabinet (the one resolved to die fighting against Nazism; the other ready to surrender), there’s even a Shakespeare-quoting Black man. (In real life, such an occurrence would probably have given Churchill, who had zero contact with the ordinary person let alone those of a darker hue, a heart attack).

Churchill and the war he led was modern Britain’s equivalent to Henry V. Anthony McCarten is a marvellous writer; but in a story deserving the complexity of Shakespeare, Darkest Hour offers us Churchill for Dummies instead.

Sadly, this, like Dunkirk, continues to be part of an eco-system of pop culture that feeds Britain’s inflated sense of identity: as the courageous self-subsistent island kingdom, who conquered the world (Who needs Europe?). This glorious version of self may have the ring of Shakespeare’s “sceptered isle” but it’s a sad fantasy that continues to nourish the country’s false sense of its post Brexit go-it-alone muscle.

And yet on the other hand, what Darkest Hour so startlingly reminds us of, is just how far the country has declined in this our present darkest hour: from Churchill’s (and Shakespeare’s) well wrought and eloquent exhortations to “stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood” to Theresa May’s version of national motivation: “Brexit means Brexit”

 

DARKEST HOUR: Dir: Joe Wright. With: Gary Oldman, Lily James (Baby Driver), Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One). Writer: Anthony McCarten. Director of Photography: Bruno Delbonnel (Big Eyes, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince). Production Designer: Sarah Greenwood (Beauty and the Beast. Our Kind of Traitor)

 

THE POST*** Solid


THIS IS A massively entertaining, minor movie.

Spielberg has spoken at length of his need to tell this story – of the deeply important role of the free press, of truth, of moral conviction – at a time when the leader of the (so-called) free world is only too eager to create a world of “alternative facts” and even more eager to demean the Fourth Estate as a place of fake news; as “enemies of the people”

“The Post” centers on the events around the leak of The Pentagon Papers by insider Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys from “The Americans”). The Papers, penned by then Secretary of State Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) revealed the White House’s long-held, and long-hidden knowledge of the futility of the US involvement in Vietnam. For years, the Papers showed, the White House (Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Johnson and Kennedy) had been systematically and cynically lying to the nation, even as it sent its sons to muddy graves.

The contents of the Papers – so damaging to the credibility of the President – were initially published by The New York Times. It was a major coup for them. But after the government banned (essentially censoring) further publications, the baton was passed to The Washington Post under the leadership of its gung-ho editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and its initially hesitant, brow beaten owner, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep).

Spielberg’s narrative follows the evolution of Graham (who inherited the newspaper after the death of her husband) from society hostess, retreating to the parlor with “the girls” while the men clustered to discuss “important matters” (A role her contemptuous male peers permitted her) to self-confident, empowered and fearless leader. As you’d expect, Streep looses herself in this layered and nuanced role. She’s never anything but entirely believable either as the timorous woman who’s supposed to shut up and know her place, engulfed in board meetings by a swarm of sober suited men, indifferent to her views or presence; or as the woman who finally finds her voice and her moral conscience and decides to risk her stature against Nixon and his gang of thugs.

Graham’s battle to defend and publish the truth at all cost was no mere ethical decision. Her decision risked personal incarceration or corporate bankruptcy. This is a story about the (literal, financial) cost of truth. If it was found guilty of contempt of court, the value of the Post brand would have been severely tarnished and a planned Wall Street offering would probably have been a disaster. The dilemma that she faced was the choice between facing the financial cost of publishing v facing the moral cost of not doing so…between her responsibility to her shareholders v her responsibility to the nation.

Spielberg is a marvelous storyteller: with an economy of style (there’s not a wasted word or scene in the movie) and a lyricism of movement (his camera swoops and tracks his characters like an omniscient god), he lays out the critical milestones and leaves it up to volumes of emotions at Streep’s command to entangle us in the ethical drama of the crisis unfolding.

But Streep’s well-written multi-leveled character is not matched by Hanks’ one-note Jimmy Stewart impersonation. As you’d expect, Hanks is watchably solid. He’s a character seemingly untroubled by doubt; almost blind to the shattered lives and the downside of potential failure. Indeed, he’s so Tom Hanks, the perennial good guy, that there’s never a moment of genuine, heart-thumping, palpable tension. So that the real, dark threat of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s malignant evil remains an abstract aural ghost somewhere dimly in the background.

And yet, there’s much in the film that’s delicious to behold. There are clusters of finely balanced scenes that seem to tell the story in visual nuggets: scenes that morph from panelled rooms with crowded, black suited, po-faced men to ones of airy flowery salons with well heeled chiffon-embraced society women to the sunny outdoors where throngs of excited cheering young women herald a new day; all with Graham at the swirling centre. And there is the tactile feel of the press: the oily, inky hands of typesetter letters, columns of newly printed newspapers swirling up and up as if to a heaven beyond, and the thick frames of sculptural lead locked into place…as if the truth then demanded that heavy anchor of lead in deliberate contrast to the ephemeral truths of our digital words

It’s nice for Spielberg to have left off editing his newest sci fi blockbuster “Ready Player One” now in the works, to remind us of the need for the Fourth Estate to be on the side of the governed not the governors, as it so gloriously was in the past. But he’s preaching to the converted. “The Post” is Spielberg’s long editorial cry designed to stroke our liberal egos in the bubble of our Trump/Koch/Fox News/Daily Telegraph threatened world where truth is an enemy of the state.

But art must do more than safely play to its gallery of believers. If journalism speaks truth to power, art must also challenge us and reframe our perspectives and threaten the status quo and destabilize our smug beliefs. It must expose the mechanisms of what drives behavior and the irrational forces that influence our decisions. “The Post” is too tame, too well mannered to live up to these demands. Its high-mindedness will cause no sleeplessness in this long night of democracy’s slow demise.

I went expecting delight and surprise. I found much to delight in. But of surprise…that was thin on the ground.

 

THE POST. Dir: Steven Spielberg. Writers: Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (Spotlight). With: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Matthew Rhys. Production Designer: Rick Carter (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, “the BFG”). Director of Photography: Janusz Kaminski (“The BFG’, “The Bridge of Spies” etc)