Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

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The Photogenic Side of 2018 (Part 2)

Concluding the visual synopsis of 2018 with painted figurines, the BAFTA and pogonophobia.

In late 2017 Ben I each brought a couple of friends to form a monthly D&D group, having been discussing the idea for years. For all its geeky reputation, D&D is essentially a structured framework for collaborative storytelling. As our adventures continued through 2018, I decided to paint a miniature to represent my rogue Sestina (the redhead in the middle). When we adopted a pet shadowhound, whom Ses named “Goodboy”, I painted him too. And then I ended up painting the rest of our party as well. Above is the newly christened “Shadowhound Gang”. I expect to share a little more about Sestina in the coming year.
The BAFTA chose to celebrate women’s contributions throughout 2018. This included an exhibition early in the year and a series of screenings later in the year, two of which I attended. Rosamund Pike selected Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty”, with Jessica Chastain’s driven performance. Gemma Arterton veered indie with Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank”, with the freshly discovered Katie Jarvis in the lead. The interview afterward led to an interesting discussion about the the responsibility to support working class actors who are found in open castings but are often discarded once the film is complete.
My regular cocktail haunt continued to be Merchant House, with its two bars specialising in whiskies, gin and rum. The beautiful new menus were themed around aspects of the British Empire. The installation of a Lillet smoothie machine was a wonderful summer addition. I also tried my hand at gin infusion when Guangzhou bar Hope & Sesame took over. As is often the case, I took the most pleasure in naming my concoctions: the thyme-infused “Interesting Thymes”, and the Chinese osmanthus fruit inspiring “Ozymandius”. In addition to other Londoners, this year I introduced overseas visitors from the USA (Jeff) and Belgium (Gloria). It is with a heavy heart that I hear some of my favourite faces from the other side of the bar may be disappearing, leaving the future a little uncertain.
I like plants. I just prefer them in their natural habitat. Outside. Fifi nevertheless decided that a peace lily was an appropriate birthday present (in reference to Angel’s plant in Hot Fuzz, which was itself a reference to Léon). Conceptually I find it a little strange for a gift to consist essentially of “here’s a thing – now it’s your responsibility to keep it alive”, although I appreciate one could accidentally achieve the same result at a drunken birthday party. Anyway, I named him “Restin” or, to use his full name, “Restin Peacelily”. It may surprise you to hear that Restin remains alive and well four months later, and I will admit that he has grown on me. He has even encouraged me to open my blinds more frequently.
Probably my favourite show to shoot this year was the delightfully subversive “The Sex Ed Special”. A wonderful burst of creativity with its tongue firmly in cheek (so to speak), it featured important messages about consent, emotionally healthy BDSM, “period drama”, motherhood and more. For it to come from new performers delivering on a limited budget was doubly impressive.
Angie threw another Thanksgiving dinner for university friends this year. Despite a last-minute venue change due to the minor setback of a broken oven, it was a fabulous meal and an excellent evening. Following prior success, I was put in charge of “thankfulness” which meant effecting my concept of a “Wall of Thanks”. Rather than an American round-the-table series of declarations (which for Brits would be horribly uncomfortable rather than heartwarming) people could make anonymous submissions online which I drew up into a series of Post-it notes. More were added over the course of the evening. The results varied wonderfully between funny, touching, passive-aggressive and incomprehensible.
The environmental argument in favour of recycled and recyclable brown paper wrapping won me over easily, though I was less convinced about how it would look. I was pleased to find that some colourful penmanship made them look rather smart. I then travelled back with a bunch of sharpies on Christmas Eve and proceeded to add illustrations too. It is something that I am likely to continue.
And okay, I know I already included three pictures of David last time, but here’s another one at nine months because… just look at him. In the final month of the year, David became a little uncomfortable around family members with beards. Rather than waiting until his vocabulary improved to the extent that we could discuss pogonophobia, I decided that immersion therapy over the Christmas period was a better alternative and he noticeably relaxed. Hopefully semi-regular Skype calls will keep him on side between visits.

The Photogenic Side of 2018 (Part 1)

For a third year, here are some illustrated moments from the past twelve months. In a world creaking under the strain of social media’s artificial expectations, I want to remind readers that these are merely the pretty highlights and not representative of the everyday experience, albeit that my photography tends to reflect the way that I see the world.

I learned a few years back that London really has to be photographed with some altitude. St Paul’s Cathedral is one of those tourist attractions that, living in London, I routinely walk past without ever venturing inside. A few days into the New Year, climbing the dome provided an elevated opportunity, with a view over Paternoster Square and out to my firm’s new offices in the distance.
A recent tradition has been an annual trip to Amsterdam, usually coinciding with work events in the region. This year was particularly special as the canals froze over, drawing the locals out to ice skate.
My nephew David was born in March. Here he is pictured at roughly zero, three and six months. A long while ago Alexis and John Michael had a arranged trip to visit Romina and Chris in March, with the questionable timing of the new addition being the sort of thing that Jenna would usually accomplish. In fact, in strange synchronicity, Jenna’s new daughter Rose was born just one day after David.
Keggfest (the annual chocolate celebration) continued this year with a Keggstack taller than Angie. The destructive creativity of my friends resulted in this mutant monstrosity of chocolate that was legitimately slightly disturbing to wake up to the following morning.
The new screen at Piccadilly Circus completes the combination of all the advertising screens into a single ultra-high definition curved LED screen. It would become a familiar sight this year as I spent several evenings at both the BAFTA and Picturehouse Central.
Ravi, Angie, Nick, Leila and I attended Secret Cinema’s production of Blade Runner this year. As the price steadily increases, I am increasingly selective about buying tickets, but Blade Runner and its sequel are amongst my favourite movies, and a world in which I am happy to immerse myself. They transformed a warehouse into a rain-soaked dystopian Los Angeles, with a narrative inspired by the “Blackout” briefly mentioned in Blade Runner 2049. Sadly their camera policy means no shots inside, a space I would have loved the chance to photograph.
House of Burlesque celebrated its tenth anniversary this year, with a Revue show on the Southbank that featured a number of upgraded acts with new costumes and visuals that were wonderful to shoot. Taking some colleagues to see it later in the run, I had not counted on being dragged up on stage, although I am told I looked entirely too at home…
Just in time for summer, I purchased a finely machined glass ball to expand my photography repertoire with a phone camera, having found I was regularly shooting with my Google Pixel. Early experimentation produced some wonderful results with both portraits and landscape photography.

More to come next time…

QuickViews 2018 (part 6)

The final QuickViews compilation (before the feature moves to the new QuickViews page) touches on almost every genre, following an intensely varied December.

69. I, Tonya (2017)8/10

Tonya Harding is infamous in America as an Olympian figure skater whose rivalry with Nancy Kerrigan ended with the latter having her knee shattered in an attack. The film seeks to present Tonya’s side of the story, with a focus on the sport’s emphasis on image over athleticism (Tonya was the first woman to land a triple-axel in competition but was brash and from a poor background). Considerable focus is placed on the effect of domestic violence, at the hands of her mother (an exception supporting turn by Allison Janney) and then her partner. The film’s breezy tone makes for a more enjoyable experience, though arguably weakens its presentation of Tonya’s loneliness, yearning for affection. Given that the truth remains elusive, the film plays with its own unreliable perspective — “I never did this,” Tonya tells the camera, whilst cocking a shotgun and chasing her husband. The result, then, is conjecture but with substance.

70. Hacksaw Ridge (2016)8/10

The smarts of MIT and the glitz of Vegas sounds like a fun ride as a college professor takes a group of gifted students under his tutelage to count cards and win big at Blackjack. Despite claims to be based on a true story, this is heavily fictionalised. Rather than improving the story, however, the sloppy script is happy to rely on cliché and a predictable twist. The leads do a decent job of humanising their roles, but the supporting characters are never more than sketches. The film’s starkest failure is that its Vegas setting feels sluggish and swiftly becomes tedious rather than electric and alluring, robbing the film of even surface entertainment.

71. 21 (2008)4/10

The smarts of MIT and the glitz of Vegas sounds like a fun ride as a college professor takes a group of gifted students under his tutelage to count cards and win big at Blackjack. Despite claims to be based on a true story, this is heavily fictionalised. Rather than improving the story, however, the sloppy script is happy to rely on cliché and a predictable twist. The leads do a decent job of humanising their roles, but the supporting characters are never more than sketches. The film’s starkest failure is that its Vegas setting feels sluggish and swiftly becomes tedious rather than electric and alluring, robbing the film of even surface entertainment.

72. Mac and Me (1988)2/10

Full disclosure: I did not actually subject myself to this travesty in pure form, only through Mystery Science Theater 3000, which made it considerably more bearable. The underlying film, however, is hot garbage and unusually I am going to include spoilers because you should not watch this. There is absolutely no creativity to this low-effort rip-off of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, with a stranded alien (MAC = Mysterious Alien Creature. How smart!) befriending a young boy (this time in a wheelchair for added emotional impact!) whilst being hunted down by the Government. This is less a film and more an exercise in excruciating product placement, with a dance number in McDonald’s and a climactic rescue demonstrating Coca Cola’s well-known restorative health properties (for aliens at least). It is fascinating that this was ever made, but it is that special kind of corporate awful which prevents it from falling into “so bad it’s good” territory. Except maybe the ending ceremony when the aliens become US citizens because my irony detector was off the charts.

73. All The President’s Men (1976)7/10

Whilst considered a classic by many, the film’s greatest strength is also its weakness. Where Hollywood typically glamourises any profession it portrays, there is courageous verisimilitude here in presenting the relentless drudgery of newspaper reporting: endless calls for quotes, hours of waiting to speak to a source, wrangling names and numbers and details, poring over notes scrawled on whatever paper is to hand. The film is often taut — through Hoffman and Redford’s excellent performances, some great camerawork, and the knowledge of how events ended — but its latter half certainly drags. The Watergate Scandal broke slowly, not all in one go, and after we see the first chink lift in the White House’s armour, to be presented with the same process repeated multiple times makes for poor storytelling. This, coupled with a lacklustre conclusion in which the dominoes eventually topple off-screen, means the film’s edge dulls as its scandal fades.

74. Pawn Sacrifice (2014)6/10

It is infinitely harder to translate a cerebral face-off to film than a physical one. The advantage to Bobby Fischer as a subject is that man’s personality and paranoia provide energy in between bouts. He is contradictory in nature, by turns self-assured and cowardly, single-minded and constantly distracted. Zwick’s film largely glosses over his worst traits, whilst not trusting the viewer enough to slow the pace sufficiently to allow games to breathe (the camera is instead as distracted as Fischer). Often it is through the eyes of Liev Schrieber as his rival Spassky that we find more nuanced understanding of Fischer. This is a film that will mean far more to those who lived through — or are at least familiar with — the Cold War, else the idea of geopolitical ramifications (on which the film frequently relies for its stakes) being attached to a game of chess seems a quaint curiosity. Merely relying on newsreels and mentions of White House attention fails to communicate how this became perceived as a battle of ideology.

75. Train to Busan (2016)8/10

The most entertaining zombie film in years, this South Korean survival horror is reminiscent of 28 Days Later, owing in part to their shared “fast” zombies (a word that neither uses) but more to their bleak outlook on human morality in survival situations. Virtually the entire film takes place on board a moving train, whilst the country collapses all around. With half the carriages swiftly infected, the constrained space keeps the danger immediate and provides us with a few creative and original set pieces. Train to Busan is ultimately a film about selfishness and sacrifice. Unusually, our protagonist begins as one of the selfish (to an extent; he cares about his family but no one else) but to protect his daughter effectively he must learn to cooperate.

76. Nocturnal Animals (2016)8/10

Tom Ford’s sophomore film is a haunting, contemplative concoction that trusts its viewers to keep pace. Although to a lesser extent that A Single Man, Ford’s designer eye remains clear in the way he frames and controls each shot. Amy Adams brings melancholy introspection to an unhappily married woman revisiting the past after her ex-husband sends a manuscript of his novel, dedicated to her. Excising his demons through a strange form of disempowered revenge fantasy, half the film is spent within this fiction, which opens with a harrowing sequence on a lonely highway at night. Although the second half is less visceral, it becomes a more intellectual study of strength and weakness. Through Susan’s memories and Edward’s fiction we see both ex-partners working through the mistakes of a failed relationship, which might finally allow for a reconciliation.

77. Atonement (2007)8/10

Keira Knightley always seems most comfortable in a period piece. Although centred around a romance in the 1930s, Atonement is more a story about perspective, misunderstanding and consequences. We see a pivotal scene at a fountain from two perspectives, allowing us to appreciate how it was misconstrued by a child. Joe Wright’s camerawork allows the audience inside characters’ heads, used most notably in a sprawling six-minute long take on the Dunkirk beach. The film’s conclusion feels slightly rushed but still maintains the book’s tragic reveal, an ending that will undoubtedly be off-putting to some but should be little surprise for an adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel.

78. Paddington (2014)7/10

Ben Whishaw voices the marmalade-loving bear from darkest Peru with an adorable charm and naiveté that Colin Firth (previously considered for the role) would have struggled to bring. Paddington is a timely immigrant story about how we all benefit from embracing our differences. Much of this rests on Hugh Bonneville as Mr Brown, as he moves from initial mistrust to concern for his family to ultimate acceptance. The film is structured as a caper story culminating in an escape sequence with enjoyable nods for adult viewers to franchises like Indiana Jones and Mission Impossible. Of particular note is the surprising calypso soundtrack (the music of Notting Hill immigrants when Michael Bond wrote his books), with a band appearing around London to mirror Paddington’s mood.

79. Tomb Raider (2018)5/10

When Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander was cast as the iconic Lara Craft, many hoped that Tomb Raider might finally crack the elusive high-quality videogame-to-film adaptation. Sadly, those hoping for more than a generic action movie will be disappointed by the results. Although it broadly follows the story beats of the 2013 videogame reboot, the script presents this as an uninspired origin story in which our orphaned heroine bizarrely spends the first half hour moping around London as a bike courier, presumably in an effort to make the heiress more relatable. Meanwhile it omits many of the scenes that demonstrate Lara’s transformation into a survivor. Vikander does what she can with the material, but apparently “this kind of Croft” is bland and largely passive until she returns to London in the film’s final few minutes. It is telling that even Walton Goggins struggles to make his villain in any way memorable. Ultimately the film is strongest in its fan-service moments, which is rarely a mark of quality.

80. Get Out (2017)9/10

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut wants to get under your skin in every sense. As is often the case with high concept horror, the less you know going in the better. Thematically, though, this is about the racial paranoia of being a minority in a white space — Chris reads into every cue, is made uncomfortable by the most casual of remarks, but is constantly second-guessing his own reading of the situation. It is an astute depiction of how exhausting such social interactions can be. The film’s opening scene is a statement of intent, with a black man walking through an affluent suburb, trying to avoid confrontation and clearly terrified of being shot. Like his comedy writing with Keegan-Michael Key, Peele is intent on confronting contemporary racial issues directly in order to provoke discomfort and conversation. In that, Get Out is a resounding success.

81. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)8/10

Concluding Caesar’s trilogy, we find the embittered chimp no longer confident in his intelligence and questioning his decisions as he succumbs to a desire for revenge. The titular “war” is something of a misnomer, though the antagonists are soldiers. Woody Harrelson’s Colonel is driven by a specific sense of purpose which sadly, because it is delivered through monologue, never receives real examination. This series has always questioned the extent to which humanity is defined by its intelligence and what it would take for mankind to recognise and respect that intelligence in another species. The final film goes one step further and poses the question at what point one loses that humanity, although there are few answers offered. It is easy to forget that half the characters are animated, such is the quality of the emotion conveyed through motion capture, led by Andy Serkis with a clearly demanding physical performance. Despite the extent to which it is employed, this is CGI used right, in service of the story.

82. Roma (2018)9/10

Roma is an overt passion project for Alfonso Cuarón: a semi-autobiographical film shot entirely in black-and-white with virtually all dialogue in Spanish and Mixtec. Yet, not only is this an indulgence he has earned, but the results are often breathtaking. The story follows a tumultuous year for the live-in housekeeper to a middle-class family, against the backdrop of Mexico in the early 1970s. The underlying themes include love and lies, abandonment and guilt, and finding a sense of place. Doubtless more will emerge from rewatching. The monochrome cinematography is utterly beautiful, from sun-bleached rooftops to forests to rolling countryside to breaking waves to the chrome accents on period cars. Cuarón is a master of his craft turning his lens introspectively.

Critical Hit

The end of the year brings some structural changes and new content to the site. These are accessible directly from the main navigation menu above, or from the sidebar of the relevant sections. For several years the Critic section has been lacking in updates and largely overlooked, as I have little time to write longform film reviews. Last year the Reeltime Harry Potter series gave it a shot in the arm but, whilst we intend to do more Reeltime projects, they too require a considerable time investment.

QuickViews

To allow for more regular updates, we are formalising the QuickView single-paragraph reviews that grew out of last year’s film resolution. Rather than collecting them into posts of a dozen or more films (which became somewhat overwhelming for readers) they will now appear as individual posts in the Critic section. Hopefully this will also encourage more engagement on individual reviews. The final set of 2018 QuickViews will be collated at the end of the year, but after that they will no longer appear in the Fragments section, where they already felt slightly out of place.

Fives

Another new feature is Fives, a response to the routine question about my favourite films. I do not have a favourite film and a static top ten list has struck me as absurd whenever I have tried to construct one. The films that speak to me the most will change considerably depending on my mood, my current focus, and a host of factors. To reflect this, Fives presents selections of five movies within varied categories loosely inspired the weird genre classifications Netflix uses for its recommendations. The Fives page will be updated only intermittently, but feel free to suggest new categories and I will try to populate them.

Virtual Photography

Meanwhile, the Artist section now features a new gallery of Virtual Photography, featuring “photographs” shot in the virtual worlds of various videogames. Over the past year I have started applying the techniques I have learned from real-world photography to experiment with virtual images. Starting with Red Dead Redemption 2, this will gradually expand as increasing numbers of games provide tools to reduce the HUD or fully-fledged photo modes. In fact, for the first time this virtual photography provided the image for this year’s Christmas card.

Christmas 2018

QuickViews 2018 (part 5)

The penultimate installment for the year takes us to the moon and back (is that a spoiler for First Man?).

57. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017) – 6/10

Writer/director Noah Baumbach has an exceptional ear for conversational dialogue, the way it actually occurs rather than witty repartee stylised for the screen. The fractious relationships of the Meyerowitz family are evident in the way they talk at cross-purposes — sometimes engaged in entirely different conversations — or respond to what they want to hear rather than what was actually said. As fascinating as this is, the characters lack real depth despite the high-profile cast, and the film drifts weightlessly through its disjointed scenes with little to say.

58. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016) – 6/10

Lonely Island’s take on the music mockumentary is really just a thin plot to string together the band’s signature style of lyrically ridiculous pop, and the songs are undoubtedly the highlights of the film. The scenes in between rely largely on the big names who agreed to provide cameos or talking heads, but the wow factor declines as the movie drags on. Spinal Tap remains the pinnacle of this style of filmmaking because what happens off-stage is so well-observed. Here, the by-the-numbers rise and fall, with band members falling out and reconciling, cannot quite sustain an entire movie. As with most pop stars: the key to enjoyment is just listening to the music and ignoring the rest of their antics.

59. To All The Boys I Loved Before (2018)7/10

A derivative but quietly charming high school drama, its unlikely initial premise swiftly falls into a familiar “fake relationship” plot but — despite the lack of surprises — the charismatic leads evoke a genuine desire for them to acknowledge their feelings. The melodrama of high school students may not have changed much in the past few decades, but this is still a fresh update for the modern generation.

60. Newness (2017) – 6/10

After a cynical opening look at the hookup culture facilitated by dating apps, the film follows a new couple who want a more meaningful connection despite meeting after they change their statuses in exasperation to “DTF”. Concerned about boredom in the absence of new experiences, the couple start to experiment, flirting with others and then taking it further. The setup is ripe for an intriguing exploration of polyamory in the modern world and the film’s middle act seems to be leaning in that direction. Sadly, the desire for a more conventional conclusion requires it to abandon this more interesting avenue. Ironically, then, there little new here. The most compelling ideas come from the older man Gabi meets, whose transactional view of relationships is unromantic and yet more realistic than anything else on display.

61. Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) – 7/10

Infuriating punctuation aside, this romantic comedy strives for greater quality and depth than its peers, even as it relies on familiar tropes. It is largely successful through acting talent and valuing thoughtful drama over laughs. Steve Carrell is allowed to make the newly single Cal sympathetic rather than a sad sack caricature. Where the comedy surfaces, it is typically wry rather than laugh-out-loud, with the best lines tending to have darker overtones. It is noteworthy that the central couple are a middle aged husband and wife who share remarkably little screen time. As is often the case with even the smarter rom coms, the movie struggles to find a conclusion and falls back on awkwardly saccharine displays, despite undermining the “grand gesture”.

62. Compliance (2012) – 8/10

After referencing the Milgram experiment (albeit without the more nuanced modern conclusion), we spend almost the entire film within the confines of a fast food restaurant on the day a caller claims to be police officer and convinces the staff to detain, strip-search and mistreat one of the employees. The facts are unbelievable yet this is both a true story and not an isolated incident. Writer/director Zobel shoots in a clinical style that minimises titillation, being more interested in the human interactions and how individuals could be led to act this way. It is Ann Dowd’s performance as the overstretched manager that sells this, as we can see her critical thinking and resolve gradually evaporate. Ultimately the film is an indictment of humans’ desire to cede responsibility to others.

63. First Snow (2006) – 6/10

A slow burn noir thriller as a confident salesman’s life is thrown into disarray after a fortune teller claims to have foreseen his imminent death. There is a pervasive sense of loneliness and isolation, accompanied by rising paranoia, with Guy Pearce delivering a performance reminiscent of Memento early in his career. Whilst the film serves as an interesting musing on destiny and control, it meanders more than it speaks.

64. Bad Moms (2016) – 7/10

I had expected Bad Moms to follow the Bridesmaids blueprint of a female-fronted movie setting out to prove the women can be as gross as the men. In fact, it is an escapist romp with more in common with This is 40. A stressed, underappreciated working mother ditches her conventional responsibilities and discovers a more relaxed approach, whilst set for a collision with the controlling president of the PTA. The comedy is fine; the drama is underwhelming. Surprisingly, however, hidden within are some genuine messages about parenting. It does not aid the storytelling that fathers barely feature at all and the PTA meetings are a sea of female faces. Although it is a shame not to see that particular trend bucked, it would be disingenuous to complain when this was only ever intended to be a rarer film about motherhood.

65. First Man (2018)7/10

First Man should not be mistaken for a film about the Apollo programme; as its name suggests the biopic is focused solely on the contribution of Neil Armstrong, sidelining everyone else. The claustrophobic nature of spaceflight is realistically presented through tight shots that leave us gazing into Ryan Gosling’s eyes with a regularity that eventually becomes tedious (although some viewers may disagree with this assessment). This is combined with an interesting decision to shoot the moon landing with IMAX cameras. If seen in that format the larger screen is entirely unused outside of that 15 minute sequence. Although impressive, IMAX viewing for this alone is far from essential. Gosling’s portrayal is deliberately understated whilst Claire Foy delivers the film’s strongest emotional performance as Armstrong’s wife. The most surprising aspect is an effective exploration of traditional masculinity and the burden placed on men who are left unable to share their emotional pain, with resulting impact on their families. Ultimately First Man is overlong but satisfying.

66. Tau (2018)5/10

Despite pretensions toward cererbral sci-fi in the vein of Ex Machina, this is really a derivative trapped woman thriller that is elevated only by some impressive production design. The conceit is that Julie’s captor is using an AI-controlled house to imprison her, allowing her to develop a relationship with the AI rather than directly with her captor. Although Tau raises a few interesting ideas about controlling AI and limiting its access to information, it fails to capitalise on these. That the science fiction is more about aesthetic than intellect is clearest from the way deletion of memories is used as a method of “punishing” the AI but inexplicably manifests as inflicting pain.

67. They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)6/10

Peter Jackson’s respectful World War I documentary is clearly a labour of love, dedicated to his own grandfather. For the audience, however, the reason to see this is the painstakingly recoloured footage which brings the front to life in a slightly ghostly fashion. It is a marvellous achievement in restoration of archival footage and to be applauded. However, this technical achievement is somewhat overshadowed by the verisimilitude with which filmmakers (and even game makers) have recreated the trenches in recent years, meaning that these are images we have seen before in sharper focus. Jackson eschews narration in favour of the amalgamated stories of over a hundred veterans sharing their memories in an anonymous fashion. Again these are familiar stories: boys lying about their age, excited to enlist; the bleakness of trench life; the horror shells and gas and barbed wire. Of greater note is the fondness for the German soldiers that readily comes through. They Shall Not Grow Old is a fine documentary then, but presents us with nothing new beyond a fresh coat of paint on contemporaneous footage.

68. Almost Famous (2000)8/10

Set in the early 1970s, toward the end of classic rock and roll’s heyday, this is less a story about music than William, a naive likeable youngster finding himself whilst touring with his favourite band, writing for Rolling Stone magazine, and trying to resist the allure of the trappings of fame. It touches on industry issues like rivalry between band members and the encroaching capitalist record companies, but ultimately Cameron Crowe’s script brisk and witty script is more interested in the individuals, both within the band and outside. Crossing the divide for William is the magnetic Penny Lane (apparently based on a real individual) who is romantically involved with one of the musicians, but takes William under her wing. Her espoused wisdom is catchy and yet ultimately impossible: “If you never take it seriously, you never get hurt. You never get hurt, you always have fun.”

Staying in Touch

Untitled sketch by Tim Burton, 1990
Pen and ink, and pencil on paper

Two of my favourite films, released almost three decades apart, are linked by an interesting thread: touch. Edward Scissorhands’ design was rooted in this concept. Tim Burton was looking for a physical manifestation of his isolation — bladed hands that prevent him from touching others without hurting them (“Hold me.” / “I can’t.”), or even himself as the scars peppering Edward’s face attest. In Blade Runner 2049, lack of touch is defining feature of both K and Joi for different reasons. K is a replicant (a synthentic human) who hunts down rogue replicants for the police department, simultaneously rejected by human officers as a “skinjob” and shunned by his fellow replicants as a traitor. His only real companion is the Artificial Intelligence Joi, whose holographic projection lacks physical substance. She yearns to be able to touch K, to break through his isolation, to comfort him. In one of the film’s most mesmerising scenes, Joi hires a replicant sex worker as a stand in, overlaying her projected image, in an effort to be closer to K. With nothing more than implied nudity, the scene evokes more vivid intimacy than I have seen captured on film in recent memory.

Simon Van Booy said that “For lonely people, rain is a chance to be touched”, an idea that always resonated with me. It is telling that when Joi is able to leave the confines of K’s apartment with an “emanator” upgrade, the first place she wishes to go is the roof, out in the rain. As she remains a hologram we see the water first fall through her image until she responds to it by adjusting her visual representation to make it appear that the water is splashing on her skin and settling — a facsimile of the touch she craves. This is, incidentally, why I think the lonely and depressed have a propensity to take long showers. Although in popular culture showers act as a cleansing metaphor, washing away guilt or shame, the sensation of warm water running across skin is also another chance to be touched.

Although I only came to appreciate it a few years ago, touch took on a particular significance to me as a child because of my grandmother. She lived with us and from my earliest memories she was virtually blind and had started to lose her hearing. We would spend time together sitting on the sofa and talking, with clasped hands replacing eye contact. She would recite Tamil nursery rhymes with accompanying actions — I could not understand the language, only her touch. Another game involved writing words on one another’s hands, trying to guess the letters from touch alone. Ours was a slow form of non-verbal communication, and perhaps this allowed me to be more patient with her when repeating explanations long after others had given up in exasperation. And I suspect it was touch that kept her grounded, even as her other senses failed.

The isolating nature of the absence of touch is not adequately recognised. Although we often denounce children’s communication through electronic media rather than in person, many of our real-world interactions remain staid, as if merely sharing the same general space is sufficient. What we consider to be “traditional masculinity” typically limits straight men’s access to touch to a firm handshake or a brief hug goodbye. A more intimate, lingering touch in a social context is considered inappropriate. I was fascinated by a series of vintage photographs that circulated in 2012 showing that in the late 1800s platonic intimacy was commonplace. In fact it seems to have been the sexual conservatism of the mid-1900s which drove the idea that physical intimacy between men was a sign of homosexuality and therefore to be avoided. So this is not even traditional masculinity; it is a byproduct of a more recent conservative mentality that we have already rejected.

A friendly touch lowers stress-related cortisol and increases the release of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of trust and bonding. Although its strong release from cuddling has led to it being colloquially dubbed the “love hormone”, oxytocin relates to any kind of pair bonding. Without touch and oxytocin, we are less trusting of others, and we feel less connected. Isolation and distrust are notably attributes we tend to associate with toxic forms of masculinity. This may also be a route to understanding the difficulty in adjustment experienced by those who leave a tactile brotherhood like the military.

So the importance of staying in touch with friends should be taken as literal rather than merely figurative. We need to break the social perception that conflates touch and sexuality. It is fitting that this piece was finished today, on International Men’s Day, but it is just as relevant for friendships in mixed groups, where judgments are frequently made about those who are more tactile with one another or about individuals who are more comfortable with such interaction in public. By stifling this, we are placing artificial barriers in the way of our ability to forge deeper bonds. By drawing together through touch we may find ourselves still adrift but at least less isolated.

For now, though, it looks like rain.

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.

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

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