Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Month: August 2018

QuickViews 2018 (part 4)

The latest instalment takes us over the half-century mark via several recent documentaries and two films about to be released.

44. Long Nights Short Mornings (2016)7/10
A perfect insomnia film, I wonder whether this series of late night encounters would be as effective if watched in the harsh light of day. James is drifting directionless through life and women in New York, unwilling to commit. He is a dislikeable but relatable protagonist, his saving grace being a level of self-awareness and repentance. Although he seemingly has no trouble attracting women, this is not some Casanova male fantasy – this is a man hopelessly enslaved by his id and we see the loneliness in his eyes. The film’s inspiration is clear in a shot that glances over a copy of Charles Bukowski’s “Women”. I have previously described my favourite genre of film as connection/disconnection and these fleeting vignettes are almost connection porn, often insubstantial and leaving a desire for something more meaningful. Yet, within this, there are profound moments that affect James and the viewer.

45. The Death of Stalin (2017)8/10
Mining the aftermath of Stalin’s death for comedy may seem an unusual choice, but the interpersonal relationships within the resulting political power vacuum are perfect for an Armando Iannucci farce. The film begins slowly, its pace gradually ramping with the characters’ paranoia, coming to a head at Stalin’s funeral. Steve Buscemi’s quietly scheming Khrushchev stands out, along with the wonderful excess of Jason Isaac’s Field Marshall Zhukov. Like Veep, it lacks the bite of Iannucci’s television masterpiece The Thick of It but this is intelligently absurd cinematic comedy.

46. The Shallows (2016)6/10
The Shallows is a slight, but surprisingly effective, thriller right until its inability to find a satisfying conclusion. The setup is straightforward: a young woman becomes trapped by a shark whilst surfing off a remote beach in Mexico. Blake Lively is an unlikely choice for such an individually focused survival film but she offers a strong performance with believable peril and pain, whilst grappling with the emotional issues that drew her out to honour her mother’s memory. It is a shame, then, that the film’s final minutes leave the audience incredulous rather than impressed.

47. The Fast and the Furious (2001)6/10
Growing up with scant interest in cars, this series of criminal vehicular excess passed me by. Although the story of a cop infiltrating a street racing gang is laughable and I still struggle to care about the cars, in the right frame of mind it is easy to enjoy the slick, high-octane action designed to provide an artificial testosterone kick. It is just a shame the women are given so little do whilst the guys growl, fight and drive. With the whole franchise appearing on Netflix I briefly considered ReelTime reviews but, based on the first entry, there is not enough content to justify it.

48. World of Darkness (2017)7/10
A solid documentary exploring the vampire-themed role-playing system developed by White Wolf in the 1990s. The filmmakers look at the social impact it had on the outsiders to whom its gothic-punk sensibilities appealed, as well as the corporate triumphs and tribulations that would eventually lead to a failed merger, an abandoned videogame and an IP left in limbo. Most interesting, perhaps, is the analysis of the widespread, lasting influence this niche game has had upon mainstream popular culture from film and television to fashion and the club scene. It will appeal primarily to those with some knowledge of White Wolf, or at least role-playing games in general.

49. Blow Out (1981)9/10
I went into Blow Out cold, other than knowing it was one of Quentin Tarantino’s three “desert island films” (Rio Bravo and Taxi Driver, if you’re interested) and the reason he wanted Travolta in Pulp Fiction. It makes sense, as Brian De Palma’s bleak neo-noir thriller is obsessed with the process of filmmaking, and the way that separate recordings of visuals and audio can, in concert, take on new meaning. Its story only works in the analogue era. The use of colour in darkness rivals Wong Kar Wei, along with carefully some beautifully controlled overhead shots. Meanwhile, more emotional range is required from Travolta than most of his career, which is essential for the film’s crowning achievement – turning an opening joke into a closing gut punch.

50. Tickled (2016) – 8/10
A bizarrely compelling documentary that starts out with a New Zealand journalist researching a light piece on the strange sport of “competitive endurance tickling”, but swiftly descends into a murky world of affluence and threatening behaviour. Ultimately a story about some people’s desire to control others (or ruin their lives) it accidentally paints a strong argument against the concept of inheriting “family money”.

51. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest (2009)6/10
Although a satisfying conclusion to the Millenium trilogy in terms of resolution and tying up loose ends, the closing film is easily the weakest instalment. This is due largely to the fact that, with Lisbet Salander first recovering in hospital from injuries sustained in the last film and then imprisoned awaiting trial, the series’ most interesting player is essentially out of action for the bulk of the film. There is still an effective slow burn journalistic thriller and some enjoyable courtroom drama, but the novel’s pacing does not translate well to a film and again Salander and Blomkvist share virtually no screen time.

52. Icarus (2017)8/10
Bryan Fogel’s Oscar-winning documentary begins with an investigation into doping in cycling until he is put in touch with Grigory Rodchenkov, head of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory. It then swiftly expands as Rodchenkov reveals details of Russian athletics’ state-sponsored doping programme and decides to go public with this information in the USA. Despite some weak structure and Fogel’s need to include himself in the story, the scandal itself is incredible enough to drive the film. Rodchenkov is a fascinating subject as he struggles with his decision, and drawing a parallel with Orwellian doublethink (complete with passages of 1984 narrated by Rodchenkov) is a nice touch.

53. Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)9/10
I have no excuse for my tardiness in catching the latest stop-motion animation from Laika, the studio who produced Coraline. The decision to focus solely on this overlooked art form allows them to develop new technology that drives the medium forward from one film to the next. The scale of some of the puppetry here is incredible, though size can be deceptive on-screen. Strong art direction coupled with stunning lighting separates the film visually from the average family animation, though it is likely to appeal more to older children. The meta-narrative about Eastern storytelling through origami figurines is a nice touch for the beauty of what they physically produced, even if it only remains in ephemeral film.

54. The Party (2017)6/10
A lean, wry comedy in that skewers middle class morality as a group of friends gather to celebrate Janet’s rise to a Ministerial position. Conversations gradually unravel from subtle sniping until the guests are at one another’s throats. Staged across just three rooms of the house and a patio, this theatrical to a fault rather than cinematic. Although there is intrigue as to the secrets each person hides, the superbly talented cast cannot overcome the lack of depth to their equally dislikeable characters. Decidedly less successful than the similarly contained Carnage, it is still an amusing diversion that does not outstay its welcome at just 71 minutes.

55. BlacKkKlansman (2018)8/10
With his early films Spike Lee cemented his reputation as a defining black voice in cinema but lately he has struggled to find relevance. His latest joint is both timely and relevant, by turns hilarious and then horrifying in the familiarity of racism it portrays. Peppering in slogans being used by the alt-right today would feel trite if it were not so blisteringly accurate. Lee’s intention is to encourage more people to vote, though it is not a message delivered expressly. The film’s lighter tone and typical Hollywood gloss on the story of a black police officer infiltrating the KKK will no doubt draw some ire from those who expect the subject of racial struggle to be handled with greater gravitas, but it allows Lee to entertain his audience whilst highlighting the serious risks posed by the recent resurgence of these right-wing ideas, all the more starkly when it follows a moment of levity.

56. The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)8/10
Cameron Post is the kind of emotional but understated role that I have been hoping for Chloë Grace Moretz to take. That she signed on to this low budget but beautifully crafted passion project makes clear how keen she was too. Gay conversion therapy remains a dirty secret of Christianity, with Western societies tacitly condoning this form of emotional abuse. This film approaches it solely from perspective of those subjected to treatment; it can be sympathetic to other characters but does not seek to explore their reasoning. Whilst a protagonist without agency is often problematic, in Cameron’s case it makes sense because that is fundamental to those experiencing this treatment. Through Moretz’s nuanced performance we see the transition from incredulity at what she hears, to wanting the process to help her, to realising she has far more understanding and agency than she had allowed herself to believe. Whilst a marketing push is likely to target a queer audience, this deserves mainstream recognition.

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman

Legendary director Spike Lee burst onto the scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s with a flurry of powerful movies about the black American experience. Although he has continued to be a prolific filmmaker, I think it is fair to say that he has struggled to maintain the same relevance as his career progressed. Irrelevance is a charge that absolutely cannot be levelled at his latest joint, BlacKkKlansman, which is timely, necessary, hilarious, and horrifying in its familiarity. When Jordan Peele pitched Lee a film about a black man joining the Ku Klux Klan, like me his immediate thought was Dave Chapelle’s Clayton Bigsby sketch.  Truth being ever stranger than fiction, BlacKkKlansman is actually based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer who infiltrated the KKK in Colorado Springs in the late 1970s. To mark the UK release of the film, Lee gave a Q&A following the screening, and his comments provide an interesting lens through which to view his latest work.

The film opens with a vitriolic hate-filled rant over footage from Gone With the Wind and DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a classic of American cinema that is deeply and openly racist, and caused a resurgence in the KKK upon its release in 1915, at a time when the organisation was virtually dead. The inclusion of the former may seem strange but it was a personal choice for Lee, who excitedly saw the film as a child but hated it because of its depictions of black people. The latter is a more profound question for Lee, who as a film student (he and Ang Lee were in the same class at NYU so he refers them as “The Lees”) learned techniques developed by Griffith but found no discussion at all of the film’s inherent racism: they were not interested in teaching the artist, only the art. The question of separation of art and the artist is as relevant in the current #MeToo landscape as ever, and Lee acknowledges that the answer will be personal. For his part, he does not think the separation should be made but clarified this does mean he is an advocate for censoring or avoiding problematic art, “I’ve never said the film  shouldn’t be seen; I’m just saying we should talk about it.”

The Birth of a Nation is not simply a backdrop to this movie, but permeates it creatively. In a central scene, Lee adopts the cross-cut technique pioneered by Griffith, this time to parallel white power and black power meetings. This direct comparison demonstrates the false equivalency between neo-Nazi movements and Black Lives Matter or Antifa.  Celebrating hatred and responding to its effects are nothing alike. Similarly, we see the rhetoric adopted by the black power movement to mirror their oppressors, but that rhetoric is a far cry from the action taken by the latter. Lee wished to make this a “contemporary period film”, evoking 70s cinema as much as the period itself. Shooting on 35mm film rather than digital certainly assisted atmospherically and, whilst watching, I felt a distinct Serpico vibe.

Lee’s politics are obvious but, sitting in a London theatre, he highlighted the global relevance of this film. This kind of intolerance is not an American phenomenon, but is represented in the rise of the right across around the world, “led by ‘Agent Orange’ — I won’t say his name”. He nodded to Brexit, Le Pen and others. His focus, though, is obviously the USA and he sees historic cinema as fundamental to American history. He is not a fan of Westerns, “their vilification of Native Americans was criminal”. Ultimately he does not mince words at all when he states, “the foundation of the United States of America was genocide and slavery.” It is the sort of thing that I say flippantly, but it is no less true.

A trademark dolly-zoom transitions from the close of Stallworth’s story to the present day, with footage from the Charlottesville rally a year ago, whilst BlacKkKlansman was in pre-production, bringing home sickeningly just how close this all remains. In discussing this Lee asked whether we could use another word instead of “violence” which he felt was inappropriate. The phrase he suggested? “Red, white and blue, apple pie, homegrown American terrorism.” Intentionally incendiary, that is of course what it is when a person drives a car into a crowd of civilians.

The takeaway from this film, Lee answers straightforwardly, is that “people need to register to vote” especially with the upcoming American midterm elections*. When asked whether he felt artists had an obligation to address politics in their work, Lee’s response reflected the fact that in the current climate politics — particularly the politics of intolerance and oppression — are inescapable: “If you’re an artist and you choose not to put politics in your art, that is a political choice.”

*As an aside, the end of the Q&A was derailed by a white American woman more interested in bragging about her ex-pat organisation (which I will not advertise) and exposing her ignorance of racism in the Midwest than asking any kind of question. It was utterly tone deaf and particularly disappointing to see in this context. Meanwhile if her organisation is, as she claimed, capable of “swinging elections” in the US, would the last election not have been worth swinging?!

How To Lose Arguments and Influence People

As a lawyer, and specifically a litigator, I know a lot about winning arguments; I have literally made a career out of it. Recently I have been struck by a number of conversations about how intransigent those on the other side of the political divide have become, how they will not be swayed even when faced with facts and evidence, how it is impossible to change their minds. It has led me to realise that in our desire to win arguments, we have lost sight of the purpose behind it. Arguments can serve all manner of purposes: resolving disputes adversarially, exploring ideas recreationally, releasing repressed emotions, and changing people’s opinions. If our desire truly is to change someone’s mind, winning an argument but leaving them more entrenched than ever is an abject failure. Why is this a mistake we are making so often?

It is not enough simply to recognise cognitive dissonance (the state of holding at once contradictory beliefs, attitudes or ideas) in our opponents; we must empathise with it. Although it may stem from flawed logic, it results in mental discomfort and psychological stress, particularly when one’s attention is drawn to it. So an accusatory attack on the illogical basis of someone’s beliefs will tend to make them immediately defensive and combative. Our minds seek to protect our current perception of reality, hence the power of confirmation bias (the tendency to seek out, favour and recall information that supports one’s pre-existing beliefs). To change people’s minds we should be focusing on the common ground and moving from there.

For example, when immigration enforcement under Trump led to children being separated from their parents (sometimes with no way to reunite them), it seemed galling that Christian Americans could ever support the policy. Weak defences included: (a) claiming that the policy allowing it was introduced by Obama; and (b) blaming parents for bringing children with them. Faced with an untrue statement, we want to correct it; faced with ignorance of the nuance to a situation, we want to explain it. But this is often a red herring that leads us away from the change we are trying to effect. It doesn’t actually matter whether ICE could have done the same thing under the Obama administration or whether the parents were wrong for crossing the border illegally. All that matters is whether we can reach common ground that separating children from their parents in this way is a bad thing, no matter who is to blame. If we can reach consensus on that, we can look at fixing the situation, something which Trump was capable of doing (and eventually did). Properly allocating blame may provide us with a sense of vindication, but it is rarely actually necessary in order to effect change.

Sometimes the goal is a demonstration of support for others rather than changing an individual’s mind, which is perfectly valid. For example, if a stranger comments with racist vitriol on a public social media post, a scathing response is justified to ensure that others reading it know that those views are not shared, condoned or tolerated. That is about identifying our audience — not shifting a bigot’s views but supporting their targets.

Some long-running arguments, particularly emotional ones, have abandoned all pretence of discourse and devolved into two sides shouting at one another. For a long time the abortion “debate” has consisted of one crowd decrying the killing of a foetus as murder, whilst the other side screams back, “my body, my choice”. Whilst this pro-choice argument is a compelling feminist position, it does not really address the concern raised by its opponents. In fact, if we were to accept the fundamental pro-life principle, that the debate is one over murder, we would not expect or even want them to back down. We need people (like Amnesty International) to argue vociferously against murder dictated by someone else’s choice. The arguments we ought to be making, then, relate to the more nuanced position regarding the start of life (and I appreciate there will be differing views amongst my readers). It is complicated and does not lend itself to easily shouted slogans. Raised Catholic, I was taught the sanctity of life from the moment of conception but, even with critical analysis, I could find no logical alternative point given that medical science’s ever-increasing ability to keep a foetus alive outside the womb meant that simply adopting current notions of “viability” felt arbitrary. What allowed me to resolve the conflicted views I held was not rhetoric about choice, but a discussion with a Christian scientist about the volume of fertilised embryos that are naturally lost during menstruation without the mother even being aware of the pregnancy. As many as 30% of women will experience an early miscarriage in this way, without ever knowing. I did not leave that conversation with my mind changed; it sat with me for a while and it gradually shifted my perspective on conception.

We teach trainees early on not to engage in point scoring against lawyers on the other side — if the Court is not going to care, it is irrelevant and has no value. This is just as true in anything but recreational arguments. We can score points all we like but they won’t mean prizes. Ultimately, recognising why we are arguing — and pursuing our ultimate goal — allows us to be successful even if the other person walks away thinking that they have won.

"Lack of imagination is an occupational hazard for an apex predator."

(CC) BY-NC 2005-2018 Priyan Meewella

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