Archive | August, 2014

Why Are We Cool With Lenin?

30 Aug

The other day I met up with my friend and colleague Scott Handcock for lunch at the Cardiff branch of Cosy Club. For the uninitiated, Cosy Club is a vaguely hipsterish chain of restaurants describing themselves as “gents club meets village hall meets cricket club”. If the food wasn’t so nice, it’s the kind of place that would make me break out in hives. Anyway… It was only as we were leaving that I noticed, fixed to the wall, a giant wooden bas relief of Lenin.

Highlighted here (in a pic taken from Cosy Club's website) by the blue arrow.

Highlighted here (in a pic taken from Cosy Club’s website) by the blue arrow.

And this got me thinking. Why are we OK with Lenin? After all, you wouldn’t expect to see images of, say, Hitler or Mussolini taking pride of place in a Harvester. It reminded me of the episode of Peep Show in which Sophie (Olivia Coleman) takes Mark (David Mitchell) shopping for clothes, and he sees a t-shirt emblazoned with the image of Mao Tse Tung. 

 

Now, while this is just a small, throwaway moment from a sitcom, like the great big Lenin profile in Cosy Club it points to the very weird inconsistency we have with despots. Media outlets in the UK and US were apoplectic at the news that a weird craze for all things Hitler-related was sweeping across Thailand, with the toothbrush-moustached mass murderer himself adorning t-shirts and posters, and that’s understandable. Hitler is not a pop culture icon. 

But neither is Lenin. 

In Koba the Dread, his book about Stalin, Martin Amis asks (and without a copy to hand, I’m paraphrasing) why we laugh so much more easily at Stalin et al than at Hitler, why we take the latter more seriously than the former. Of course, as is often the case with Amis, he’s not quite right. From Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator to both versions of The Producers, we’ve always laughed at Hitler, but at the same time we have still treated his crimes with greater seriousness than we have atrocities committed in the USSR – making the Holocaust a staple of the history syllabus, but leaving many students ignorant of Stalin’s purges or the Holodomor.

As Mark says in Peep Show, it’s not a competition, but while it’s true that the industrialised nature of the Holocaust – not to mention its incomprehensibly short time span – make it stand out against all horrors of the 20th Century, the sheer numbers when it comes to those killed by the Soviets are truly staggering, with even the most conservative estimates offering a death toll of 15 million for the Stalin era alone. 

When discussing the (most likely exaggerated) Thai “Hitler craze”, many people put it down to historical ignorance, rather than anything ideological (though, of course, the two may overlap), but if this is true of Thai culture, it is also true of ours. When Cosy Club bought that bas relief of Lenin, did the purchaser have any idea who he was? If they did, perhaps they thought, “Well… It’s only Lenin. I mean… Lenin didn’t do any harm, now did he? All the bad stuff came with Stalin.”

Which – excuse my language – is just bollocks.

Terror and mass murder were a part of communism from the very start, long before Stalin got his claws into it. In his excellent book Black Mass, the writer and philosopher John Gray reminds us that from their earliest speeches, Marx and Engels knew that terror would be an essential part of any revolution. Here they are in an 1850 speech to the London Communist League: 

Above all, during and after the struggle the workers… must oppose bourgeois attempts at pacification and force the democrats to carry out their terroristic phases… Far from opposing so-called excesses – instances of popular vengeance against hated individuals etc – the workers’ party must not only tolerate these actions but give them direction.

 

Nice guys.

Nice guys.

 

That culture of violence and violent retribution didn’t skip a couple of generations after the Russian Revolution; it was there from the start. Even if we’re to ignore the shooting of the Romanovs, the years 1917-1924 (Lenin’s tenure) saw more people interned and executed by the Soviet regime than were killed in the preceding century of Emperors. Lenin’s lovely, cuddly, second-in-command Trotsky, so beloved by artists and writers around the globe during his later exile, and mourned in many quarters as a martyr of the one true faith, played an integral role in establishing the Gulags in which over a million people died of torture, execution, starvation and disease.

Even if one was to argue that it’s a time thing, that no-one would complain about a picture of Napoleon or Genghis Khan, and that Lenin’s crimes are almost a century old while survivors of Hitler’s death camps are still with us, that still doesn’t wash, because the knock-on effects of the Soviet experiment are still being felt, nowhere more so than along the border of Russia and Ukraine. 

So my question remains… Why are we cool with Lenin?

 

References

  • Gulag: A history – Anne Applebaum
  • The Great Terror – Robert Conquest
  • Black Mass: Apocalyptic religion and the death of Utopia – John Gray
Advertisements

‘All Is Lost’

22 Aug

Blogpic

It’s often hard to believe there was ever a time when movies had virtually no dialogue (you know… apart from title cards saying “Oh no! That dastardly cad has tied my beloved to the train tracks!”). If people praise a film’s script nowadays, very rarely do they mean the deft way the plot is strung together or the richness of the characterisation, but rather the cleverness, the wittiness or the realism of its dialogue. When a film is short on dialogue, it’s the first thing critics will point out, whether it’s novelty pseudo-silent movie The Artist or the bleak and speechless opening scenes of There Will Be Blood.

So tricky is it to develop characters without dialogue, that when protagonists are separated from other people, they are often given either a voice-over (The Life of Pi) or a tendency to talk to animals or inanimate objects (The Life of Pi, Castaway) to compensate, but apart from the briefest opening narration, writer-director J.C. Chandor gives Robert Redford no such props in All Is Lost.

Here Redford plays an unnamed character (listed in the credits simply as ‘Our Man’) whose yacht runs into trouble in the Indian Ocean. The film then follows him as he patches up damage to its hull, and attempts to make his way towards the nearest shipping lanes, with varying degrees of success. And that’s pretty much it. As the title suggests, things don’t exactly go to plan. Indeed, that bit of narration at the beginning suggests things will go very badly, and it would spoil the film completely to tell you how it ends, or anything that happens along the way, because this is a film in which every second, every little moment, counts.

Blogpic

Without dialogue – save one or two muttered curse words and a single, abortive attempt at an S.O.S. – Redford’s performance is all about microscopic moments, changes of expression. It certainly helps that, while undeniably craggy (he is 78, after all) Redford is still in great physical condition for his age, and the fact that his opening voice-over (a letter to loved ones) is so apologetic, and he is sailing alone on the far side of the world, invites the viewer to craft their own back story for his character. Retired businessman, I guessed, with adult offspring (I pictured a small army of daughters) and at least two divorces under his belt. But despite his relative athleticism, there’s still a frailty there that will have you on the edge of your seat with both worry and suspense.

If the character were played by an actor half his age, that concern just wouldn’t be there, or the film would have to rely on cheap tactics (e.g. a full-blown shark attack, or pirates) in order to place the character in peril. Here, peril is provided by nothing more schlocky than a boat that is sinking, surrounded by thousands of miles of open water in every direction.

Blogpic

Chandor’s previous feature, Margin Call, was one of my favourite films of 2012, and demonstrated his ability with both an intelligent script (packed full of dialogue) and an ensemble cast. Here, he’s gone in totally the other direction (perhaps a conscious decision), and shows incredible skill at handling both small, intimate moments and the big set pieces. The storm sequences really are the stuff of chewed fingernails and frayed nerves, and some of the underwater photography is just ravishing. The score – by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ Alex Ebert – is also worthy of much praise, adding a transcendental edge to Redford’s aquatic mishaps; though I could have done without the end credits’ song, in which Ebert more or less sings the credits as they roll (far too reminiscent of Whose Line is it, Anyway?)

At a time when so many films are either sequels, remakes or adaptations, and almost exclusively about – and aimed at – young adults, a film as exciting, as dramatic as this, with a protagonist well into his autumn years, is something to be cherished. 

All Is Lost is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.

Enraged Eric – ‘The Rover’

19 Aug

Robert Pattinson and Guy Pearce in The Rover

I think we’ve now reached a point where we can put together a sliding scale of just how horrible the apocalypse and its aftermath will be, based entirely on post-apocalyptic movies. The final scene in 2012, for example, gives the impression that while there may be a whole lot of earthquake-related PTSD to deal with, everyone is quite enjoying the round-the-world cruise aboard their giant, tsunami-proof arks, so we could score that a 1 out of 10 for bleak hopelessness. 

Right at the other end of that scale you have something like the nuclear holocaust docudrama Threads, in which life in Britain is plunged back into the Dark Ages or the big screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which survival means not only foraging for food but making sure you don’t get eaten by redneck cannibals.

Though most high street branches of Tesco were still open for business.

…Even though most high street branches of Tesco remain open for business.

Perhaps three quarters of the way along that scale comes David Michôd’s The Rover. Starring Guy Pierce and Robert Pattinson, and set in a dust bowl Australian outback, “10 years after the collapse”, the setting and subject matter were always bound to attract comparison with the Mad Max movies (a fourth installment of which is out next year), but in truth The Rover makes the Mad Max films look like Cannonball Run. 

Pierce plays Eric who, while refreshing himself at a tin shack passing itself off as a roadside tavern, has his car stolen by a criminal gang, headed by Henry (Monsters and Killing Them Softly’s Scoot McNairy). The gang are on the run from a botched robbery, having left Henry’s younger brother, Reynolds (Pattinson) behind, but when Eric and Reynolds meet, Eric forces the latter to help him find his car.

Blogpic

What follows is a kind of road-movie-cum-western, as the pair travel from one ramshackle settlement to the next. Quite what caused the “collapse” is never really explained – it’s assumed to have been economic, with Australia’s mining industry just about the only infrastructure still up and running – but its aftermath is felt everywhere, from a glacially calm grandmother attempting to pimp out her grandson to a doctor keeping her dogs in cages, so they won’t be taken away and eaten by thieves. This might not be a world ravaged by environmental disaster or nuclear war, but virtually all sense of civilisation is gone. Violence is sudden, casual and almost inevitable in a world where law and order are provided by ragtag gangs of soldiers, rather than police.

The real revelation here is Pattinson, who I’d previously seen only in a handful of films, none of which were a particularly good showcase for his skills. Some reviewers have singled out his twitchy mannerisms and speech patterns for criticism, reading the character as a simpleton (one even mentioned Robert Downey Jr.’s “full retard” speech from Tropic Thunder), but I can only assume they weren’t paying attention to the film. Did they perhaps miss the moment when Eric overhears Reynolds speaking fluent Cantonese? Were they in the loo when Reynolds takes out a small army unit and rescues Eric, having dug under a fence to break into their compound? The character certainly seems more of a savant than a simpleton; and while Eric may be the film’s protagonist, Reynolds is certainly its heart.

Blogpic

Pierce’s performance is perhaps not so much of a surprise, having delivered a similarly stoic turn in The Proposition, but his character remains fascinating. It becomes clear, following a shocking act of violence early on, that Eric is an unknowable quantity. If we sympathise with him for the loss of his car – even though his particular attachment to it remains a mystery until the very last scene – that sympathy dissipates pretty quickly, and soon enough it’s clear this is a movie without “goodies”… only “baddies” and “even worsies”.

The film’s major triumph, however, is in its depiction of a society that has come apart at the seams; indeed, one which no longer has the right to think of itself as a society at all. It takes only a cursory glance at recent headlines to realise that the barbarity depicted here isn’t far-fetched, begging the question – is the “collapse” referred to in the opening titles an event we have to look forward to, or something that’s already happened?

Let's face it - it's the latter.

Let’s face it – it’s the latter.

So “So Bad, It’s Good” It’s Bad – ‘Sharknado 2’

2 Aug

Sharknado 2

If, in years to come, the 21st Century is remembered for one thing, it’ll be as the era that witnessed the death of irony and sarcasm. Social media have rendered subtleties in tone obsolete, so that comments intended with tongue firmly in cheek read as utterly sincere, and “parody” accounts and websites such as christwire.org are regularly cited as genuine examples of fundamentalism. (See “Poe’s Law” for further details.)

The late 20th Century’s tsunami of postmodernism left Western culture awash with insincerity, so that almost everything these days is framed with irony. Whereas twenty years ago we might have watched films such as Plan 9 From Outer Space or Mommie Dearest because they set out for greatness but achieved only schlock, we are now making films with the intention that they will be “so bad they’re good”.

Pictured: Academy Award® winner Faye Dunaway

Pictured: Academy Award® winner Faye Dunaway

Which brings us to Sharknado 2. This TV movie, produced by the SyFy channel, is the sequel to 2013’s Sharknado. We know this, because its full title is Sharknado 2: The Second One, in case some of us fail to understand the concept of sequels. The first film centred around the unlikely premise in which Los Angeles is hit by a tornado that manages to suck all the sharks out of neighbouring waters, and then dump them on an army of unsuspecting Angelinos, including a surprisingly lifelike Tara Reid and John “the dad out of Home Alone” Heard.

Typically, for this sort of movie, it features scenes in which those milling about in the background fail to respond in any way whatsoever to the THOUSANDS OF FUCKING SHARKS falling from the sky, and – despite the dense black clouds overhead and the editor dimming everything in post-production – the streets of LA are brightly sunlit throughout. The sharks look like something from one of the earlier Tomb Raider games, the CGI floodwater looks like mercury, and a climactic scene has our hero, Fin Shepherd (Ian Ziering) fight his way through an unconvincing shark’s innards with a chainsaw.

As illustrated here by a 6-year-old using Photoshop. In 1995.

As illustrated here by a 6-year-old using Photoshop. In 1995.

Sharknado, in summary, is not a good movie, but even pointing this out feels redundant, because whereas those responsible for Batman & Robin or The Room or Battlefield Earth thought they were making good films, the makers of Sharknado knew it was rubbish. Even so, what they aim for isn’t self-conscious spoof, in the vein of Airplane! or Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, but a strangely lacklustre compromise between the two: Too aware of its own shortcomings for them to be fun, and not funny enough to inspire belly laughs.

For its part, Sharknado 2 does, at least, aim for the latter, and at times it even comes close. There are some mostly unnecessary “star” cameos from the likes of Andy Dick, Billy Ray Cyrus and Kelly Osbourne, and this time round our “Oh my God… They’re in this?” turns are provided by Judd Hirsch (playing a taxi driver… Taxi… geddit?), A Serious Man’s Richard Kind and Kill Bill star Vivica Fox. Ian Zierling and Tara Reid return as our intrepid, chainsaw-wielding hero and a Ritalin-impaired marionette (at least, I think that’s who Reid plays), and the whole thing ends with a scene in which Zierling surfs a shark through a tornado before landing it on the Empire State Building’s spire. Of course.

Same thing happened when we were there last year. True story.

Same thing happened when we were there last year. True story.

But whereas a movie like Airplane! knowingly sends up the cliches and other weaknesses of disaster movies, Sharknado 2 blunders on, blissfully unaware of its own. New York’s subway system floods, and its tunnels become infested with sharks and – somehow – alligators, yet the streets of Midtown remain surprisingly calm and quiet, with shoppers and commuters visibly going about their business as usual. When three tornadoes (sorry… sharknadoes) converge on Manhattan, an aerial shot shows what appears to be a Sunday morning level of traffic passing through Times Square. That isn’t “ironic cheesiness”, that’s just terrible film-making.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh, and at times I laughed quite heartily at Sharknado 2, but when the credits rolled I was left with that same feeling of hollow dissatisfaction that I had after its predecessor, because in the absence of genuine wit (and that’s the one thing Sharknado 2 is utterly lacking), there has to be someone on the receiving end of those laughs. If you can’t laugh with someone or something, you have to feel that you are laughing at it, and with the Sharknado movies that just feels pointless.

At the risk of taking SyFy’s monster movies way too seriously, it would be easy to dismiss Sharknado and its ilk as just “trash TV”, but I can’t help but feel these movies are part of a wider programme in which our cultural benchmarks are being  lowered intentionally. High production values cost more money, so why not make a virtue out of terrible direction, acting and special effects? Groom people into not only accepting rubbish as the norm, but demanding it, and you can get away with anything.

Too late.

Exhibit B.