Sunday, 23 February 2014

BRITAIN'S GREAT WAR??? (WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE KIDDING, MR. PAXMAN?)


“If any question why we died,
Tell them because our fathers lied”

So wrote that infamous ultra-leftist Rudyard Kipling, after his son died during the First World War.

It's not just that they're still lying. You'd expect them to still be lying. It's how they're lying that's significant.

When Tory Minister Michael Gove made his absurd grandstanding comments about a “just war”, they led to a brief riposte from me and a debate on 'Newsnight' chaired by presenter Jeremy Paxman. (Not necessarily in that order of importance.) A TV debate of course framing it as something controversial, to be discussed according to the familiar format of aye-sayers and nay-sayers. Most of us just assumed Gove was preaching to the choir of the Tory Right, and next week he'd be back to fulminating about Reds under some different bed.

But it was then succeeded by 'Britain's Great War', a four-part documentary series presented by the self-same Paxman. Who weighed the matter up carefully, before complaining that “it's easy to laugh” at tally-ho Captains looking forward to the big push, while labelling deserters “cowards” and conscientious objectors “cranks”.

So much slaughter, how did he try to justify it all? Well, he didn't really bother, did he? The title says it all. He just took the evils of German imperialism for granted. The build-up to war was ignored, the situation in Germany was entirely reflected through British propaganda images. A mock telegram from the Kaiser was read out, all mispronunciations and expansionist drool. Paxman's dry tone told us that, to us modern and sophisticated types, such stuff seems crude – the residue of simpler times. But, in the absence of any other perspective whatsoever, we were still supposed to take it's jingoism as essentially correct. The Krauts are not like us, but mere brutes. That's why they talk so funny. Everyone knows that, don't they?

Except this rule was suddenly broken for the end of the War, when we were suddenly allowed to see inside the 'enemy' camp. To be precise, we saw civil unrest and a starving crowd setting on a horse. You know, the uncivilised behaviour we'd expect of foreigners. Not the sort of rot we'd want spreading over here, thank you very much.

The problem isn't that Paxman is a blimpish, xenophobic bigot with a continent-sized blind spot – though clearly he is. The problem is that this was presented not as a polemic or an opinion piece, but as a balanced documentary. By BBC tradition it's being framed as objective information. Back in the Sixties, we were being told, some long-haired types might have had some funny notions about the War. But now the high's worn off and we can be more sober minded.

Michael Gove was just the scout. Jeremy Paxman is the enemy advance.

Then we were back to the illusion of balance. Two programmes set up to form a debate, from a pro- and an anti-war perspective. The first, 'The Necessary War', to be presented by right-wing historian Max Hastings. The second, 'The Pity of War', by... um... right-wing historian Niall Ferguson. (Who only recently told the Guardian “the Left love being provoked by me.”) That seems to be the span of debate as far as political discourse goes today. It's a bit like setting up a debate on immigration between the UK Independence Party and the British National Party.

Hastings positioned himself alongside Gove from the outset, announcing on trailers he'd be attacking the ”'Blackadder' take on history.” He claimed without a trace of irony that “Britain must fight to uphold... the rights and freedom of small nations”. India's misfortune was to be such a large nation, then.

Because of course lined up against Germany's “aggressive and expansionist” policies were Britain, France, Russia, Italy and Belgium. Every single one of them a colonial power. Including the biggest of them all (Britain) and, by common agreement, the most repressive (Belgium). As much as Germany's ambitions were “aggressive”, it was part of the need for the recently unified country to catch up and gain their “place in the sun”, before the whole world was entirely carved up between the others. They weren't worse. They were just late.

It's often argued that the initial rush to enlist was due to people forgetting the horrific nature of warfare, after so prolonged a peace. But of course that's nonsense. There'd been peace in Europe, yes. But the same period had seen colonial wars aplenty. It was a long series of magnificent triumphs by machine gunners over spear throwers that had made war seem such a ripping yarn.

And if Hastings is siding with Gove, scratch the surface of Ferguson's argument and you get something fairly close to UKIP. It's the common Right bugbear of Euroscepticism, the crucial question is whether Britons risk being made into slaves. “The neutrality of Belgium,” he asserts, “is not self-evidently a cause worth the lives of... Britons.” Even if the result had been a continent-wide German empire, this would “simply have created something like the European Union”. Why, the underlying message states, should we let ourselves be dragged into their squabbles?


But he also tries on a more progressive hat. He's the only figure so far to ask a fairly obvious question – was the War really some German plot? And, short of some 'inside job' theory that the Kaiser was behind the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand, it manifestly wasn't. It was the tangled system of alliances that let one chance event snowball into full scale war. The cock-up theory of history triumphs over the conspiracy theory yet again.

And he's the only figure so far to look evenly at the question of the German 'threat'. And again, as soon as you do the whole scare story falls apart. As he points out “Germany was in some ways more democratic than Britain... and in every way more democratic than Tsarist Russia.” (Though this doesn't stop him complaining that the War “left the British empire at the end of it all in a much weakened state.” Freedoms only counting at home, it seems. Perhaps something you'd expect from the author of the series 'Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World'.)

Yet that reference to democracy also exposes the limits of his thinking. It's like he imagines it all happened through the Kaiser having a secret kindly side. Against the xenophobic stereotype of order-loving proto-fascist Krauts, it was Germany which had Europe's most sizeable worker's movement. And that movement needed appeasing, through social reforms. (Though initially it was mostly marshalled into support for the War, largely by railing against the autocracy of Tsarist Russia.)

The actual underlying causes for war, beneath the spark that erupted at Sarajevo, that can wait for another time. For now let's quote Karl Leibnecht who, despite being a Reichstag Deputy in 1914, was prevented from reading out the following speech:

“The present war was not willed by any of the nations participating in it and it is not waged in the interest of the Germans or any other people. It is an imperialist war, a war for capitalist control of the world market, for the political domination of huge territories and to give scope to industrial and banking capital.”

Instead, let's focus on the immediate result of the War. Which might briefly be summarised as “good for the workers, not so good for the bosses”. A significant, perhaps the predominant, reason the war had ended had been a widespread refusal to fight. And the period that followed it saw the biggest uprisings in world history. As Dave Lamb has commented:

“There is no more promising material for revolution than soldiers returning from wars, careless to danger and accustomed to risks and to taking collective action. Peace held no prospect for them… That winter of 1918-1919 was the nearest Britain ever came to social revolution: the authorities lacked the support of the armed forces and the careerists in the TUC were faced with a similar situation in industry.”

But of course none of that penetrates. The workers and soldiers stay off stage for this debate, waiting to see whether General Hastings orders them up the hill or Kaiser Ferguson tells them to stand at ease. Even the ever-unobservant Paxman comments how post-War Britain was manifestly different to pre-war, and more akin to the place we live now. But, much like the German 'threat', he doesn't bother going into why that should be.

In fact, even the “left-wing” satires which so incited Gove mention none of this. The sole exception is the one drama - 'The Monocled Mutineer' (1986), which focused on the Etaples mutiny. And while 'Blackadder' is almost on perpetual rotation, 'Mutineer' has been re-shown precisely once, two years later. (Perhaps a handy slogan for the Tory press: “The BBC, transmitter of left-wing propaganda from 1986 to 1988, with the exception of the year 1987.”)


When Gove criticised anti-war satires such as 'Oh, What A Lovely War' (originally a 1963 stage musical) he was, true to type, railing against the Sixties. But there's something else. Even if the popular unrest that followed the War has been airbrushed from history, knowledge of how terrible a folly that war was leaves an untugged thread leading back to it. A thread that must be snipped. And as ever the way to snip that thread isn't so much to argue, but to shift the apparent centre of debate away from where it lies. A lot of clever and professional people, they sat down and talked about the First World War. And they decided it was just fine after all.

More speculatively... actually much more speculatively...

Many people pointed out that, while Gove labelled criticism of the War as “left wing”, 'Oh, What A Lovely War' was actually based on Alan Clarke's history 'The Donkeys' (1961), to the point that he even won royalties from the film version. And Clarke was not just a Tory MP, but an arch-Thatcherite once blacklisted by his own Central Office for being too right-wing. At the time, this was considered further evidence of Gove's crass stupidity. (And, we shouldn't forget, this is the man who complained that 50% of schools had been found to be below average.)

Nevertheless, maybe that shows another thread there that needs snipping. Thatcher's common origins were of course greatly exaggerated by her followers, and were to no degree shared by the Eton-educated Clarke. Nevertheless, appearances count and Thatcherism often portrayed itself as a challenge to the established order. Opportunities needed to open up for the aspirational, to those who wanted to “get on”. To Clarke, the folly of the well-bred Generals in the War was just an extreme case of careers going to the privileged rather than being open to ability. They were 'donkeys' compared to the 'lions' of the common soldiers in their lack of dynamism and bravery. But they were also 'donkeys' in the sense of being pack animals in a machine age, blimpishly attached to old methods. Notably, he characterises them as having an obsolete obsession with cavalry.

But what of today? Cameron went to election on an oxymoronic platform of 'progressive conservatism'. (Tagged by his deriders as “hug a hoodie”). When voting arithmetic pushed him into a coalition with the Lib Dems, you might have thought that would push him further in the socially liberal/economically conservative direction. In fact it's been the opposite. The widespread backbench revolt against gay marriage seems to have put him off even tokenistic forays.

Instead what we've been treated to is clear-cut ruling class solidarity – a government of the toffs, by the toffs, for the toffs. If anyone is poor today it is of course their own fault, for choosing to live on Benefits Street. But more than that, social mobility has shrunk to the point where it's statistically non-existent. Working class voters sometimes saw in Thatcherism the opportunity to start leading middle class lives. But now the middle class is effectively shrinking. As the cartoonist Martin Rowson put it, “social mobility can go down as well as up”.

Were the aspirational, with their vocational qualifications and spirit of enterprise, the Notts Miners of the voting booth? The willing saps, who would strive for promissory notes, only to see them ripped up later? Now we are in the opposite situation to the end of the First World War, where there's little if any class struggle opposition, was it not inevitable that we would then start to retreat into the society that existed before the First World War? Where one of the most primary rules was – don't question your betters.

(NB. Some of the quotes from Hastings and Ferguson come from the print version of the 'Radio Times', and don't seem to be reproduced on-line.)

Further reading for the obsessive:


Sunday, 16 February 2014

CURRENT 93 IN A CHURCH (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

Union Chapel, London, Sat 8th Feb


”He can open the seals because he wrote the code.”

Those new to the often arcane world of Current 93 may wish to start by perusing this list of influences. As it ranges from Dostoyevsky to the Bee Gees, picking up anarcho-punksters Crass and deep-sea fish along the way, it's possible you will find it overwhelming rather than useful. But then that overwhelming sense is what's useful where Current 93 are concerned. Others may prefer to consult my unauthorised, sketchy and highly subjective potted history, posted the last time I saw them.

However much I enjoyed my previous sighting, the salubrious Union Chapel made for a far more appropriate venue than the halls of the South Bank Centre. Cups of coffee replaced beers, and CDs and LPs (yes they still trade in LPs!) were stuffed in the slots normally reserved for hymn books. (Not that these surroundings held back lyrics about doing speed, and such like.) From the off, this wasn't going to be one of your regular gigs.

When talking about Current 93, words have a habit of giving up on you. You may want to bear that in mind with what follows...

They're one of those 'bands' that are at root an individual – David Tibet, plus his somewhat unhinged visionary mindset and whatever compatriots he's gathered to convey it this time. Which gives things great scope for reinvention, something he audaciously employed by turning the whole main part of the gig over to the latest release,'I Am The Last of All the Field That Fell', performed in track order. (Which we are encouraged to see as a whole cloth, a suite of songs, rather than a collection of tracks. The band seemed intent on playing the whole thing through, with audience applause only occasionally breaking in, as if through cracks in the music. And while the CD does have a track list, this is tucked away inside the lyric booklet.)

And while as ever I'm behind on releases, it sounds some way indeed from the last thing I have heard – the mighty, pounding doom metal of 2009's 'Aleph At Hallucinatory Mountain'. In fact, the nine-piece band seemed some way not just from those long-gone industrial roots but from their more general haunts of rock and folk. Much of the music had a timeless quality you couldn't pin to any era. Suited and hatted, Tibet could even have been a crooner from some alternate history – John the Baptist meets Tony Bennett.

It's difficult to pin their music, even down to whether they're dealing in songs or tracks. They sometimes sounded like a jazz cabaret act double-booked with a left-field experimental troupe, yet somehow always magically able to combine their efforts. Rich melodies and sonic adventures somehow combined. Though they employ electronics, it's cool the way the more left field sections don't confine themselves to those. There's puffs on the sax, for example, that sound more like something you'd encounter on a free impro night. The hurdy-gurdy is reclaimed from folksiness into the source of strangeness it always was. My best analogy for their sound would be a schooner. Numbers set out piano-driven, proceeding at a stately pace. The rhythm section kicking in is like the point the sailboat picks up a current and surges forward. After which it's all exploration.

Tibet's vocals are perhaps akin to Dylan's drawl, not least in inducing a Marmite reaction. It's a taste I've acquired, but I can understand those who call it an acquired taste. This was the first time I'd heard him employ a backing vocalist (Bobbie Watson), and I was curious how his voice might sound when placed against another. Would it just expose his limitations in singing? In the event they proved one of the night's highlights, at its best when the backing vocals shadowed his rather than supplying harmonies. Joseph Burnett of the Quietus would seem to agree, writing “Watson's contribution is by far the most exciting, her eerie high notes winding around Tibet's more nasal tones to lend an almost mystical edge to proceedings.”


John Peel famously said of the Fall, “they are always different, they are always the same”. A quote I've already appropriated for Swans, but it equally applies to Current 93. However much their style varies, the themes and mood always remain. Though almost always trading in apocalypse, they revel in the double meaning of the term as both destruction and revelation. (I suspect Tibet would be sympathetic to this Alan Moore quote.) With Tibet's passioned, frenzied and barely decipherable torrents of imagery, they don't just induce a fugue state – you come to the sense that you're feeling everything you could possibly feel, all at once.

Then for the encore they became almost a different outfit. Tibet had said not one word to the audience through the main set, appearing preoccupied. After which he became the garrulous figure from the earlier South Bank show. (“My mother says I go on too much,” he confessed.) The rockiness returned to the band, with crowd favourites served up with a wall-of-noise sound. 'Black Ships Ate the Sky', which has always previously reminded me of Hawkwind, came closer to Faust – an intense, metronomic grind, as if built around drilling the concept into your skull.

After which I hurriedly furnished myself with the new CD and a tube station, in that order. I am barely competent to tell you what Tibet does, and would be clueless as to how he does it. But I am indeed glad that he does. If this first gig of the year is setting the standard, the bounty should be rich indeed.

This one justifies two clips if anything does. Two tracks from the new album...


...then that afore-mentioned new version of 'Black Ships'...

Sunday, 9 February 2014

'THE BRIDGE': ON HOW THE NORDIC GOT ITS NOIR AND ON TERRORISM AS PERFORMANCE

“Everything goes back to the beginning."
From Hollow Talk by Choir of the Young Believers (plus the theme tune to 'The Bridge')


Into the Dark Place

Nordic Noir, it seems, has now become an international marketing term. Perhaps strange when you consider it never seems to have been intended as any kind of export. Which kind of raises the question, what is it and how did it become so popular abroad? Okay, that's two questions. So we may as well add a third – how does the most recent entry, the second series of 'The Bridge' contribute?

The aficionado may want to know we're drawing from a narrow sample pool here, specifically the original 2009 film of 'Girl With The Dragon Tattoo', the Swedish TV series 'Wallander' starring Krister Henriksson (2005/13) and the Danish series 'The Killing' (2007/12). (Yes, this ignores a whole lot of stuff, including source novels and two whole other versions of 'Wallander'. Absent for the following respective reasons - I haven't read them and I don't like them so much. We don't just throw this show together, you know.)

In a brief comment the 2011 American remake of 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo', I commented on Nordic Noir “reflecting the current crisis of social democracy in the Scandinavian countries.” Which in hindsight would seem a better description of capital-P political drama 'Borgen' (Denmark, 2010/13), and its more roundly positive view of social democracy's survival prospects. It's essentially about social democracy facing fresh challenges on a weekly basis, nested inside a meta-story of it rebranding itself with the growth of the New Democratic Party. It's not a story with a happy ending, in fact it is very keen to present politics as something without an ending, something perpetual. But its outlook is broadly positive. Which rather conflicts with something else I said - “a flower not wilted but poisoned at the roots.” Its this second phrase which now feels much closer to Nordic Noir.

If all the above examples are crime stories, Nordic Noir is less concerned with murder than with forensics. (It can have quite a love/hate relationship with action scenes, not knowing whether to dramatise or underplay them.) The singular title to 'The Killing', that's important. A single event, a murder or a disappearance, comes to act as a loose thread. Tug at it long enough and the whole cloak comes to be unravelled. Even when not based in novels, Nordic Noir tends to use novel-length plot lines, slowly uncovering a truth from beneath decades of suppression. (The exception being the standalone 'Wallander' stories, but then I've always seen that as something of a weakness of theirs.)

'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo', for example, focuses on the wealthy Venger family dynasty. Ostensibly benevolent and patriarchal, a pillar of the community, they are slowly stripped back, revealing a trailing tangle of crimes including collaboration with the Nazi occupiers. (As potent a subject in Scandinavia as in France.) And with them is stripped the whole social model Scandinavia was supposed to uphold.


Hence Nordic Noir's patented setting in the 'dark place'. The cellar or the woods, the hidden place, the edge. Trailers for that most recent series of 'The Bridge' involved Swedish detective Saga indomitably shining her torch into the latest of those dark places (above).

Yet the social democratic model is given another face in Nordic Noir. The 'troubled' detective has of course become a genre trope, as seen in McNulty from 'The Wire' or, moving on to CIA operatives, Carrie from 'Homeland'. McNulty states openly at one point that its what makes him good for his job that makes him bad for everything else. Yet the detective is held to be obsessively dedicated, trampling over social niceties and shouting at adversity in the pursuit of his case.

When you look at Lisbeth Salander (from 'Girl With the Dragon Tattoo', below), Sarah Lund (from 'The Killing', below) or Kurt Wallander (from... oh, you guessed, below) a more appropriate word might be 'autistic'. Salander is a gifted outsider, a tight-lipped emo. Lund and Wallander are less dynamic challengers to the status quo than crumpled figures. Defeated by life, crime-solving is the one area where they can have control. Unable to cope with the world at large, they focus on a microcosm of it - like a kind of art therapy.




That two of these three figures should be women is sometimes held as a form of feminism, a further example of Scandinavia being 'advanced'. I think it's something else entirely. Society associates women with nurturing, empathic roles – care work, customer services and so on. The concept of an autistic outsider woman vies with these conceptions. But it's also noteworthy how institutions, particularly public institutions try to feminise their image to portray the right note of approachability. Think of the way the BBC has decided it's nickname is “Auntie”, despite the fact no-one else calls it that without being told to. (Its generally referred to by staff by it's original Orwellian name, Big Brother.) By giving the cop, the person society has assigned to uphold common decency, a female face, Nordic Noir plays up to this. But it then distorts that sympathetic female face into something far less recognisable.

And if they export well? By design or (more likely) accident, all of this does in some way play up to popular stereotypes about well-meaning but melancholic Scandinavians. (Such as the popular supposition that Sweden has an unusually high suicide rate.) They commonly use the bleached look common to modern dramas – silver-grey skies, muted blues and greens. (Prompting Sam Wollaston to ask in the Guardian, “are there really no primary colours?”) Us foreign viewers can innocently fancy that Scandinavia actually looks that way.

In fact it's the two popular perceptions of Scandinavia handily rolled into one. They live in some liberal utopia of tolerance, overly generous welfare and designer furniture. But of course it's a sham, they're all secret drinkers and depressives. Our prejudices were correct, we knew it all along! While of course we can simultaneously be responsive to the plot lines. Even if these dramas have been incubated in Scandinavia, the two-headed monster of neo-liberalism and narrow nationalist xenophobia haunts our lives too. We can imagine we're watching somewhere strange and remote to us, even as we're able to relate to everything. It's like the way the best angsty, alienated music is made by youths. The rest of us can relate to those feelings, but youths are likely to be carrying them at their strongest.

Crime As Creative Art

'The Bridge' had its first series broadcast in Scandinavia in 2011, making it something of a late entry in the Nordic Noir stakes - after the phrase had passed into common currency. And so, perhaps deliberately, it chooses to vary from the formula - taking something of a chess move away from the others.

Though there's an autistic similarity of sorts to Salander or Lund, Saga is not cut from the same cloth. For one thing, with her patented Scandinavian blonde locks, sports car and leathers, you could make an action figure out of her relatively easily. (Though perhaps you could also have a Sarah Lund, with swappable jumpers.) Even Saga's name seems to border on a superhero codename. She's less dysfunctional than differently functional. In some ways she's more like the “high-functioning sociopath” of 'Sherlock', fused with the vulnerable Pinnochio innocence of Data in 'Star Trek Next Generation'.

And this is underlined by the premise. Both Lund and Salander have a male companion when they make their investigations. But the concept of 'The Bridge', heralded in the title, is the odd-couple relationship between Swedish Saga and Danish Martin. (It is almost hilarious the way a show with such an insular-sounding premise could find a foreign audience. The titles underline this by presenting the word “Bridge” in Swedish and Danish side-by-side. They're precisely one letter different.) While Saga is brilliant but cold and remote, Martin is instinctual, worldly while world-weary and something of a philanderer. Their mis-communications are quite often played for laughs. (Perhaps there's even some Spock and Kirk in those moments.)

However, the real difference is over the structure. There's the same general format, where a single incident snowballs into large-scale events. But the criminals are less hidden in institutions, their one discovered moment unravelling their deceit, than criminal masterminds outside the system. While Nordic Noir is not exactly scrupulous about credibility, 'The Bridge' dances furthest from believability, sometimes straying into 'Seven' territory. And these crimes have at least an ostensible political motivation. Chesterton's comment “the criminal is the creative artist, the detective only the critic” could have been coined for 'The Bridge'.

In the first series, the Truth Teller is committing an ostentatious series of crimes, all publicly announced, with the claim this is to draw attention to social problems. It's suggested he wins a fair degree of public sympathy, despite his murderous methods. It's like taking things on a step, where the failings of a nominal social democracy have become a given.

This is mirrored in the second series with an eco-terrorist cell. While the series pulls a switch half-way through, which both muddies the waters and makes matters more similar to the first , let's focus on the cell for reasons... well, of familiarity.


BBC4 have in recent years reserved the Saturday night timeslot for foreign dramas, something a bit arty and brainy while still a bracing thriller. Though both 'The Bridge' and French cop show 'Spiral' (above) have been shown in this slot, they are quite different beasts. If Nordic Noir works as an export through playing up to national stereotypes, it gains traction precisely by playing against them. It's set in Paris, yet in an entirely different city to the scenic tourist magnet, with its smart-waitered cafes serving lattes to the chic beneath the Eiffel Tower. Instead there's anonymous estates and il-equipped cop shops. While 'The Bridge' is sleek and stylish, 'Spiral' is gritty and fast-moving, often shot hand-held. Nobody, I am guessing, has bought a domestic furnishing after watching 'Spiral'.

Series four of 'Spiral',subtitled 'State of Terror', (2012) introduced new adversaries – an anarchist gang who had taken up terrorist tactics. And its these big differences between the two shows make the immense similarities between the terrorist gangs all the more striking.

Let's start by acknowledging the different shows do generate genuine differences. In 'The Bridge', the gang are so media-savvy you wonder if they have their own design consultant. They release choreographed and stylish videos, like a cross between the Residents and Bob Dylan's classic 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' video. Its terrorism as performance (below). While in 'Spiral' they're a gang of scruffy punks, led by someone looking remarkably like Dennis the Menace's Gallic cousin (below). As much as they communicate anything, they do it by spray-painting a wall.



Yet note that virtually Saga's first comment on the show was that cuts to library funding are “foolish”. Unblinded by sentiment, we're being tipped off, she sees through all that bogus economics. As with much Nordic Noir, the assumption is that she is reflecting the audience's liberal opinions. And her response to the eco-terrorist cell proceeds along similar lines. Partly her detective instincts are keen to assemble the puzzle. Partly her autism is relieved to be dealing with something explicable. But she also gloms on so quickly to their methods that she must be in some way sympathetic to them.

And in many ways the programme goes with her, simply taking for granted that not enough is being done about climate change and all the rest. Their slogan, “the world is bigger than us”, isn't really so far from my own Council's professed aim to be a “one planet city”. This isn't any-cause fervent fanaticism. Any frustration felt is quite genuine.

None of the cops in 'Spiral', characterised quite differently as day-jobbers, show any of the same implicit sympathies. And indeed, 'Spiral' is in general inferior to something like 'The Wire' in it's easy, one-dimensional portrayals of 'criminals'. But there's the same careful need to separate the 'good' protestors from the 'bad'. Here the gang uneasily share a squat with non-violent protestors, mostly concerned with providing the “sans papiers” with shelter. They are consequently torn between opposition to the gang, whose adventurism directly endangers them, and a reluctance to assist the police. And they distrust the cops not because they are the bad set against the good, or even because they are misguided, but because they know events have placed them on opposite sides. Their distrust is seen as understandable, even when the cops function as our main characters.

Yet, and this is perhaps the crucial thing, while they receive an implicit pat on the back for doing the right thing, it's taken for granted that their 'good' actions will accomplish nothing. Their reward for all this virtue is that its its own reward. In 'Spiral' they ceaselessly picket detention centres, but it's predetermined that after bashing their pots and pans they will go home and the centre will still be there. Similarly, 'The Bridge' ends up at a Climate Change conference, with an army of chanting protestors outside. But the story doesn't focus on them. They're just a crowd scene, a backdrop to set the real action against.

And yet there is little if any connection made between the ineffectualism of the 'good' protestors and the militancy of the 'bad'. And without this, what is left? What is it that makes the 'bad' bad? In both cases, the driving force is the guru-like leader, insisting this is the way it must be. (Needless to say, these anarchists have a leader and accept him as such.) The rest of the group then orient around this, as a bunch of henchmen and a waverer.

Now, this model may well match some political terrorist groups. In fact, I could name some right now with no effort. Yet what it really matches, note for note, is cults. Ultimately, they have more in common with Charlie Manson's Family than they do with, for example, the Weathermen. The leader's teachings must not be questioned. The actions he commands will do away with this sick old world, and take us somewhere better. Yet it is implicit that what his commands are really aimed at is the group themselves. The succession of ever-more-militant tasks serve to bond the group together. The members are on permanent trial, constantly asked to prove themselves again and then again.

Any expressions of doubt are not met with political arguments against reformism or references to the desperate nature of the situation, but simple accusations of disloyalty. Waverers are just being chicken. What the group is doing must be right, because that's what the group is doing. Anyway, its too late to get out now. And this model only matches actual political groups insofar as these might themselves overlap with cults. It's classic confirmation bias.

This is at its most explicit in 'The Bridge'. The group waverer is most hesitant over having a younger brother, who he is entirely responsible for. Needless to say these responsibilities mean nothing to the group, as they are something outside of it. And the younger brother is shown trying to fit in with his gang of peers, his greater efforts being met with greater derision. Of course the two plot-lines work in parallel.

The problem is not that either political gang is presented critically. I've seen enough of political groups in my time to have no rose-tinted views of them. They are often quite capable of becoming their own self-parody, of making stupid and self-marginalising decisions of their own accord. Nevertheless, there's a clear historical connection between increased repression, decreased effectiveness and increased militancy. The big era of leftist groups turning terrorist in the western world was the early Seventies – the Angry Brigade, the Red Army Faction, the Weather Underground and so on. And the people in those groups would have seen friends and comrades be beaten, imprisoned and in no small amount of cases killed. Of course, the evidence of hindsight is clear – their reaction was the wrong one, it only served to play further into the authorities' hands. But if it was a mistake, there was a context for the mistake. It wasn't a random outbreak of fanaticism.

The upshot is this - political protest is part of a flourishing democracy. It should be permitted, perhaps even to an extent encouraged. Tolerance makes us better people. Just as long as its implicitly understood by all involved that it will not and must not accomplish anything at all. To try and step outside of this is to place yourself inside an authoritarian and fanatical cult, which will never let you leave. We live in a town which has no other show.

And yet I like it. I'm glad its there. I lapped up both shows.

That may partly be down to sheer amusement value, like hearing Niall Ferguson on history or Michael Gove on anything at all. Though that alone would not deal with the way these stereotypes occur in otherwise 'quality' shows. There's something more important. I prefer it when political views with which I sympathise get portrayed, even in such an absurdly distorted way. There's a famous quote, though no-one seems to know whether it came from Gandhi or American unionist Nicholas Klein: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”

Its a problematic quote, especially with that word “win”. Quite often, “win” would seem to mean “get seriously hurt”. And of course even when there have been actual victories, “win” is still a way of capping the bottle. We're often told the Civil Rights movement “won”, even when it's two chief adherents (Martin Luther King and Malcolm X) were both killed mid-campaign and racism is rampant in modern America. The more radical wings are chopped from history, their demands forgotten. And the 'good' protestors of today are told that if they are not 'winning' like their forebears it must be because they're not good enough.

But focus instead on “laugh” and “fight”. Protestors can be denounced by politicians, caricatured in dramas, or scoffed at in sitcoms. But that's still a whole lot better than “ignore”.

I'm opposed to the mechanistic notion of how culture works, which sometimes tries to pass itself off as materialist. Culture is not rubber-stamped upon our thoughts by the cunning schemes of the ruling classes, nor is it imprinted by the material conditions of our existence. If, like me, you see history as the history of class struggle, then culture is one more arena where that struggle takes place. The floor of that arena is raked against us, but that's as true of any other arena.

Of course these shows are merely thinking up something juicily contemporary and enticingly risqué to spice themselves up. (“What if the villains were terrorists, but seemed to have some sort of point?”) But at some level, the existence of pro-immigrant protests in France or counter-summit mobilisations in Denmark have managed to intrude into the regular world of cultural production. “Ignore” failed. Now we're onto the next phase...

PostScript! Though the idea came separately, I could not deny I was influenced by this exceedingly good post Shabogan Graffiti wrote for Philip Sandifer's blog. They don't quite cover the same thing. While Shabogan Jack talks of the class base of villainy, one notable feature for both 'Spiral' and 'The Bridge'is that class is almost entirely absent - political activism is assumed to be innately voluntaristic. And hence of course, either cultish, hypocritical or both...


Sunday, 2 February 2014

'THE WOLF OF WALL STREET'


Martin Scorsese's latest film, though based on the eponymous memoir of stock market fraudster Jordan Belfort, is not about the financial crisis. Belfort had been indicted a full decade before that. But it's like watching 'M*A*S*H' without thinking of the Vietnam war. We cannot help but see it through that prism.

As such, inevitably, many have tried to read a political commentary into it. Given Scorsese's history in gangster flicks, some have suggested we're being invited to compare Belfort and his huckster cohorts to those criminals of yore. Peter Bradshaw's Guardian review starts “imagine the honey-gravel of Ray Liotta's voice in 'Goodfellas' saying: ‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a stockbroker’.” The film is mostly played as a black comedy. Perhaps it could be seen as a modern version of Hogarth's 'Rake's Progress', a salutary tale of the road to ruin.

Yet others have seen in it a celebration of the Wall Street 'greed is good' ethos - a hagiography, a bigging up of those big characters, a revelling in excess. After all, the film is bookended by a corporate video for Belfort's company and one of his motivational sessions, as if the whole thing is one big PR statement. Producers Riza Aziz and Joey McFarlane were themselves former investment bankers. Who had to win a bidding war to get the rights to his memoirs. (While, needless to say, he has only repaid a fraction of the money he stole, when compelled by court orders.)

And it's a perfect fit, isn't it? One big business which trades in glamour and appearance sidling up to another. As if to complete the circle, Belfort himself has said he was 'inspired' by Gordon Gekko from the 1987 film 'Wall Street'. (Who of course coined that “greed is good” quote.) Seen that way the film indulges Belfort's claims for his company Stratton Oakmont - “this right here is the land of opportunity. This is America.”


“Gosh, I don't know. People keep asking that. I'm still obliged to think I hope they see a greedy lifestyle and in the end living in excess won't make you happy. But I don't think we made this movie to tell a moral story about what's right and wrong.”

And she's right. The point about the question is that it's the wrong one. It's like someone who only knows of religious art suddenly coming across a collection of porn prints, and trying to fit the new wine inside the old bottles. You can of course criticise the film for having no political agenda or moral standpoint. But there's no point in pretending it has one. Not even the wrong one.

Based on Belfort's memoir, it makes no pretence to objectivity. Almost the first shot is his sports car changing colour as he shifts the narrative. It's a distorting mirror. To be precise it's a convex one, exploding his salesman's grin over the screen. To quote Peter Bradshaw again: “his character gets to the end of this long movie having learned nothing, conceded nothing and even physically changed in no obvious way.”

And apart from him and his cohorts, who gets their face in edgeways? The schmucks they hoodwink go unseen, out of sight and mind, just the occasional duped voice over the phone. The FBI, while the antagonists, are essentially mirror images of the crooked traders. They're equally swaggering and macho, telling Belfort he's their “Greneda”. One side has their targets set in sales, the other in prosecutions – same deal.

The nearest to a moral voice is Belfort's first wife, Teresa, who innocently asks why he can't defraud rich investors who can stand to lose the money. And she's soon swapped for a trophy wife. (Robbie's Naomi, as mentioned earlier.) In fact it's hard to talk about the role of women in the film without sounding like some sort of tub thumper. It's like they took the most virulent feminist critique they could find and used it as a shooting script. It's like an MTV video with an R rating and a three hour duration.

Naomi must be the female character with the longest screen time, but she never builds into any kind of character. As with everything else, she's only seen through Belfort's eyes – a hot babe when she's giving sex, an uptight bitch when she's withholding it. She's not really any different from the general parade of strippers and hookers that line up through the film.

Needless to say, these are as much accoutrements as the sports cars and designer watches, flesh and blood versions of pointy signs which say 'RICH' and 'FLASH'. In a crass plot to smuggle out money, they absurdly tape cumbersome wads of notes all over a stripper. That image feels pretty much like a microcosm.



But there's more than that. Not only is there no disguising they're getting the girls purely through money, this is even flagged up. The cash (dubbed “fun coupons”) is as foregrounded as the girl flesh. The cash and the girl become equivalent, both seen as emblems of a winning personality. Notably, the desired location to screw a hooker is in the office. Very often at your work-desk, in front of your cheering co-workers. They're part of the same loop as closing the sale and hitting the targets, public demonstrations of virulence. Ultimately, sexual desire isn't really the thing. Even when they're interested in the girls, they're only really interested in themselves.

The film becomes a classic example of the sink hole of apoliticism. The genuine belief that you're not out to make any kind of political point, that's what makes its politics so virulent. There's no space for anything else here, beyond these get-rich scams, because what else is there? But that just raises the question – what kind of political point ends up being made? Despite all appearances, 'greed is good' doesn't really cover it.

Watching the film I was reminded of two quotes I'd read. Pete Townsend often commented all that interested most people about The Who was Keith Moon's antics. The band, the recording and the touring, just existed as a mechanism to keep him in crashable cars and tabloid headlines. And NME journalist Charles Shaar Murray once said that in the late eighties he went on a night out with city traders, and was amazed how their excess and debauchery dwarfed anything in the music world.

Now put those two things together...

Reviewing the Facebook-startup film 'The Social Network' (2010) I commented “this film’s tagline should really be 'dotcom startups are the new rock’n’roll.'” I was pleased with that at the time. As it turns out, I was wrong. Dotcom startups are like bluegrass or skiffle. They were just preparatory. Financial investments, they’re the real rock‘n’roll.

Notably, Scorsese has never made a rock biopic. (Perhaps just as well, most of them are terrible.) But he’s quite definitely a rock’n’ roll film-maker, in the way Altman is a jazz film-maker. Not just in the way music is so central to them. His films are kinetic, a seeming tautology transformed into a style. They leap and bound, rush from one grand set-piece to another. They act brash, they're big, broad statements. Even when you're not always sure what that statement is.

(I'm half-wondering if that's the reason why there's such an uncharacteristic shortage of rock music on the soundtrack here, because it would become a kind of double-booking. Mostly there's blues. Which works quite well. Despite the stereotypes many white folks like to stick on blues, it's not all etherial 'spiritual' stuff akin to gospel. There's a swagger to blues, which gets put to serious use here.)

Because, seriously, when was the last time rock star antics hit the headlines? And the very few that remain, can you see them mythologised by movies in the same way Jim Morrison or Sid Vicious were? People queuing round the block for 'Pete Docherty The Movie'? Rich lists have replaced chart placements in our mind maps of influence.

Of course, it may be I’m betraying my age with the rock stars comparison. Rock stars have not so much become a spent cultural currency as collapsed into that bigger, more insidious category of ‘celebrity’. (Take Ozzy. Who exactly could define what makes Ozzy famous nowadays?) And the film works as an exploded version of the ‘kiss and tell’ features celebrities are always selling to the tabloids. But either way, we're in the same sphere.

The film follows almost the same trajectory (you can’t really call it plot development) of a rock biopic, just updated and transferred. First the band get together, play some small gigs, start hitting the big time (defined as girls, drugs and money) ...then their camaraderie ruptures as everything crashes and burns. There's the same conflation of livelihood and lifestyle, as if what we have here is a lifestyle that pays. Hence the notion that drugs aren’t just a reward for hard work or something supplemental to what you do, but an essential component to it. It’s just that instead of taking acid in the desert and recording an album, you snort coke then seal a deal.

And just like rock biopics are interested in every aspect of a band's career apart from their actual music, so these sexy-new-world-of-business films shy away from the nitty-gritty of trading. As I said of 'Social Network', “the algorithm that underpins Facebook… can be paraded precisely because we don’t get it, it’s importance rising in proportion to its incomprehensibility.”

All of which is made explicit here. There's several scenes where Belfort starts to explain market workings to us, then cuts off as if able to see our uncomprehending faces. Don’t worry, folks out there, we know that stuff isn’t for you. More strippers soon, promise. In fact, things are even taken up a notch. We’re told definitively, and very near the start of the film, that no-one understands the markets. It’s like establishing a basic premise. You'd call it a game-rule, except it’s there to tell us this game has no rules.

Money used to be simple. You learnt the basic maths of it at school, and moved on. Now money has become a form of magic, like the shift in science from solid Newtonian particles to shifty quantum mechanics. Labour and materials don't make money any more, now money itself makes more money. Corporations can make it disappear from one jurisdiction and make it reappear in another. In fact, so magic has it become that even money-men don't understand money any more. They get where they are not by know-how but by strength of personality, by being able to ride it's chaos better than the rest of us. (Here the point of comparison would be Cronenberg's flawed-but-interesting'Cosmopolis', (2012) with it's portrayal of money as fascinating and inscrutable as religion, analysts studying currencies like ancient texts.)

And if this theory is correct, it could explain something which might otherwise seem beyond explanation. When Lord Jones complains of a culture of kicking "wealth creators", when Barclays CEO Bob Diamond insists the time of remorse for bankers should now be over (before most of us were even aware it had begun), when venture capitalist Tom Perkins compares criticism of the profligate rich to (yes really) Nazi persecution of the Jews, what is actually happening? Given that the world as we know it was almost brought to ruin by their reckless stupidity, given that the rest of us are now paying through the nose for mistakes not of our making…. seriously, what ‘kicking’ has there been?

As much as any criticism has occurred, it’s been kept out of mainstream political discourse. What may initially seem merely an absurd over-reaction, a crass case of chutzpah, is more accurately described as literally hysterical. We are only getting the reaction. What’s being criticised is the idea that finance capital can be criticised. It’s like Lord Jones and Tom Perkins have become the Royalty of the modern world. Even when they get it all wrong you’re not supposed to say so, in case that upsets the natural order.

Perhaps what this 'apolitical' film really does is explain this lack of ‘banker bashing’. Back when we had rock stars, what did we need them for? To quote the old Flux Of Pink Indians song, “vicarious living, ritual boredom”. Mostly, we use our cars to drive to work. The idea that someone else, in another reality, crashes his into a swimming pool – that titivates our lives of plodding mediocrity. But those same images give us a good reason to stay sitting in our crash-free cars. They live that way so we don't have to. They get the highs and lows so we can stay with the evens.

And just as rock stars are supposed to crash their cars, so must the stock of stockbrokers plummet. When Belfort's yacht gets scuppered, its neither moral lesson nor cheap figleaf. It’s as much a part of his role as when he was partying on its deck. The job of bankers and brokers is no longer to soberly invest our money, reassuringly dull-suited. Their job is now to drink, snort and screw it. They’re there so we can live our lives vicariously through them. Someone should make a movie about them.

Oh hang on, wait...