April Showers (May Come Your Way)

April 12, 2014 at 1:58 pm (cinema, film, jazz, Jim D, philosophy, song)

An appropriate song for today, from hep-cat Mel Torme (who always wanted to be a drummer):

…but if you want real, classy corn, here’s Al Jolson singing it, acted and lip-synched by Larry Parks (happily, not in black-face):

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Mickey Rooney – as Puck – bows out

April 8, 2014 at 1:50 pm (Champagne Charlie, cinema, film, Guardian, Marxism, RIP)

Thanks to the Guardian (and how often do we say that here?) for reminding us of this remarkable Mickey Rooney performance from 1935:

The Graun even manages to find a Karl Marx connection;

In 1935 the late Mickey Rooney played Puck in Max Reinhardt’s movie of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Critical opinion was mixed – as it was for the audacious casting of James Cagney as Bottom. But, in his indomitable way, Rooney captured the manic mischief of a character who has one of the Bard’s great lines – “Lord, what fools these mortals be” – and who should be taken more seriously than he sometimes is. Shakespeare’s is only the most famous incarnation of one of English folklore’s great creations, “the oldest Old Thing in England” as Kipling’s Puck describes himself. As Puck, the Hobgoblin or Robin Goodfellow, the laughing sprite is a great subversive, as Karl Marx recognised when he wrote about “our brave friend, Robin Goodfellow, the old mole that can work in the earth so fast, that worthy pioneer – the Revolution”. It’s not often you get Mickey Rooney and Karl Marx in the same sentence, but Puck makes all things possible.

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Peter Lorre – a real star

March 24, 2014 at 9:32 pm (anti-fascism, cinema, comedy, culture, film, Germany, Jim D, United States, wild man)

Sorry folks: I missed the 50th anniversary of Peter Lorre’s death (23rd March, 1964).

I feel a particular closeness to this great character-actor, because he was one of the film stars that my dad (like many people of his generation) did impersonations of (the others, in my Dad’s case, being Sydney Greenstreet, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Walter Brennan):

Here’s Lorre in a typical role

Here’s his best ‘serious’ performance in Germany before he fled fascism for the US and ended up in Hollywood::

…and my personal favourite:

Finally: the ultimate accolade:

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Ravel Day on Radio 3

March 6, 2014 at 2:05 pm (BBC, culture, film, France, Jim D, modernism, music, wireless)

Today (Friday 7th March) BBC Radio 3 clears its schedule on Maurice Ravel’s birthday for a day devoted to the composer’s music.

Following on from similar focuses devoted to Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert and Webern, March 7 will celebrate the great impressionist’s music through recordings dating from the 1930s to the present day.

Performers involved include pianists Pascal and Ami Rogé in a recital from Wigmore Hall (including a two-hand arrangement of Boléro), the Nash Ensemble, and New Generation Artist mezzo Clara Mouriz. There will also be a series of downloads called Ravel Revealed exploring aspects of his life.

Now, of course, there’s a lot more to Ravel than Boléro (my personal favourite is  Daphnis et Chloé) but I couldn’t resist bringing you this 1934 film (below) as a foretaste:

Better than Torville and Dean, eh?  George Rafters all round!

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The Nymphomaniac man and the virtue of “anti-Zionism”

February 21, 2014 at 8:16 pm (anti-semitism, cinema, fascism, film, Guardian, Jim D)

The film Nymphomaniac has been getting some pretty good reviews – in the serious press, you understand, because this is most emphatically not a porn movie. As the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshore tells us, “It is about the most tender, platonic relationship imaginable: a depressed and exhausted woman and an elderly, vulnerable man, played superbly by Charlotte Gainsbourgh and Stellan Skarsgård .” Sounds promising, I thought – I might even go and see it when it hits the multiplex.

But the review goes on, and suddenly bells start ringing. Writing about the film’s director, Lars von Trier, Bradshaw notes that “He playfully alludes to his earlier films Breaking the Waves and Antichrist, and is still clearly prickly about the ‘Nazi’ controversy of two years ago at Cannes. Out of nowhere Seligman [the 'elderly, vulnerable man' - JD] pointedly explains the virtue of being ‘ant-Zionist, not antisemitic’”.

Ah! This Von Trier – he must be that director chappie who upset people at the Cannes film festival with ill-advised comments about Hitler. If, like me, you can’t really remember the details, or indeed, didn’t take very much notice in the first place, this Youtube clip is worth watching:

Well, it’s certainly good to have any misunderstandings cleared up: when he said “I understand Hitler” and “OK, I am a Nazi!” Von Trier was just being playful. And now he’s got a character in his new film making the distinction between “anti-Zionist” and “antisemitic”, it’s obvious that the director cannot possibly be an antisemite. I mean, just using the words “anti-Zionist” proves that doesn’t it? And, after all, even at Cannes he stated “Israel is a pain in the ass.” So it’s OK for the Guardian and its readers to like poor, misunderstood Mr Von Trier, and his latest (“heartfelt and even passionate” – P Bradshaw) film.

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A London time capsule from 1927 – in colour!

January 12, 2014 at 5:27 pm (cinema, film, history, Jim D, London)

No politics here, but it’s a fascinating, newly-discovered glimpse of London between the wars. I found it strangely eerie and moving, looking at all those now-dead faces (the little girl at the Peter Pan statue may possibly now be a very old lady, but is probably long gone). At least England had a “brilliant victory” over the Aussies at the Oval in 1927:

H/t The BFI (British Film Institute) and Laurie Coombs

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Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas … the saddest Christmas song?

December 25, 2013 at 12:16 am (BBC, Christmas, cinema, film, jazz, Jim D, music, song, Soul, wireless)

In general, I’m one of those listeners who objects to music on Radio 4 – especially the infuriating Mastertapes with the annoying rock fan John Wilson, who – frankly – should just fuck off to Radio 2, where he belongs. However, I’m happy to make an exception for Soul Music, which this week featured the strangely melancholic Christmas song, ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.’

It was written in 1944 by one Hugh Martin for the film Meet Me In St. Louis, in which it was sung by the film’s star, Judy Garland. It comes at a particularly sad moment in the film, and Garland felt its original lyrics (read out for us in the Radio 4 programme) were altogether too depressing, and eventually Martin was persuaded to replace them with slightly more upbeat (but still hardly jolly) words. Later on Frank Sinatra got Martin to change them again, this time replacing “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” with “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”

As always with Soul Music, the programme discusses not just the song’s lyrics, but also its (surprisingly sophisticated) harmonic structure and chord changes, interspersed with the thoughts and reminiscences of people for whom it carries a special meaning and/or memories. James Taylor’s pensive version, recorded shortly after 9/11, quite rightly receives a special mention:

My favourite version, by Ella Fitzgerald, doesn’t feature in the programme, perhaps because Ella’s voice is almost too good and (combined with the relatively up-tempo swing arrangement) doesn’t quite convey the pathos that the lyrics seem to demand. Never mind: it’s Ella and it’s beautiful. So here’s wishing A Merry Little Christmas to all of you!

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It’s A Wonderful Life: the Fox News version

December 24, 2013 at 12:14 am (Christmas, cinema, economics, fantasy, film, humanism, Jim D, red-baiting, satire, solidarity, United States)

This comes courtesy of Jimmy Kimmel, via Gene at That Place. The entire clip is worth watching (dealing, at first, with the burning question: “is Santa white?”), but the classic film trailer starts at around 2.10:

Below: clip from dangerous leftist subversive Frank Capra’s 1946 ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ before it became the ideologically acceptable ‘Mr Potter and the Commies of Bedford Falls’ (NB: children and impressionable adults should not be allowed to watch this unsupervised):

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The poverty of Žižek’s philosophy

October 11, 2013 at 9:32 am (AWL, celebrity, cinema, fantasy, film, intellectuals, Marxism, philosophy, post modernism, posted by JD, wild man)

The Perverts Guide to Ideology, reviewed by Matt Cooper at the Workers Liberty website:

It is difficult not to warm to a film that places a radical left wing philosopher into mock ups of various film sets to lecture on his theory of ideology. That is what film maker Sophie Fiennes has done with Slavoj Žižek.

So we have Žižek dressed as a priest talking about the ideology of fascism in the mother superior’s room from The Sound of Music, about the vampiric attitude of the ruling class towards the working class in the lifeboat from Titanic and about the nature of political violence in Travis Bickle’s single iron bed from Taxi Driver. All of this is amusing enough and makes a long and in places opaque lecture pass pleasantly enough, but the ideas that underlie it are rotten.

Slavoj Žižek has been proclaimed by some as the greatest political philosopher of the late twentieth century — there is even an International Journal of Žižek Studies. His work is popular with a layer of the radical left, although maybe the kind who consumes rather than acts on their politics.

He has somewhat replaced Chomsky as the author of the coffee table books of choice for the armchair radical, and he sold out the Royal Festival Hall when he spoke there in 2010.

His ideas have been developed in a series of books since the late 1980s, and fit with the themes of anti-globalisation, Occupy, and other radical struggles that are often one side of class struggle.

It is noticeable that Žižek does not attack capitalism as such. The exploitation of workers as workers is notably missing from this film. Rather he attacks consumerism, particular in its Coca-Cola/Starbucks form. This is despite, or maybe because, his philosophy is obtuse.

Although Žižek places himself in the revolutionary tradition and draws on Marx, he does not see himself primarily as a Marxist. He says he wants to reinvigorate German idealist philosophy, particularly that of Hegel, through the application of the French post-Freudian, Jacques Lacan.

There is no feeling in this film (or in Žižek’s numerous books) that this view emerges from a study of society and the forms of ideology in it. Rather, consistent with his idealist philosophical approach, the ideas emerge from the realm of pure thought, albeit cut with some empirically based psychoanalytic theory The world is sampled, squeezed and (mis)interpreted to fit this theoretical view.

His evidence about society is what many of us would not think of as evidence — mainly film. This is not an affectation, but central to Žižek’s view of the world. Ideology is fantasy, and film is the purest form of the projection of such fantasy. Film is not the mirror which we hold up to ourselves, but feeds us the fantasies by which we constitute ourselves. The films are, for Žižek, reality. Thus M*A*S*H and Full Metal Jacket are used to understand the American military, Brief Encounter the nature of social control, and Jaws, fascism!

To say that the shark in Jaws stands for nothing other than fear itself is hardly a startling insight. Alfred Hitchcock spoke in similar terms about how the purpose of his films was not essentially narrative or plot, but to create an emotional response in the viewer. To say this kind of work gives us an insight into how the Nazis scapegoated the Jews is little short of ridiculous.

Onto his argument, Žižek bolts some bits of other people’s theories as if they were his insights. So he goes on to say that underlying the fantasy of Nazi ideology was one of a modernising revolution that preserved tradition. But the idea of fascism being “reactionary modernism” was asserted by Jeffrey Herf in 1984, and has antecedents stretching back to the 1930s.

Similarly, Žižek’s assertion that the riots in the UK were driven by consumerism (the “wrong dream”) is both unoriginal and, in Žižek’s case, seems to be based on the most casual of acquaintance with the evidence.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology also demonstrates a wilful failure to engage with a Marxist understanding of ideology. In this film (and elsewhere) Žižek has dismissed the Marxist theory of ideology which he claims can be summarised by Marx as “they do not know it but they are doing it”. The line is a rather obscure one (from the first German edition of volume one of Capital, but not in future editions).

Nor is the line directly about ideology; the “it” here is people producing exchange values for the market. For sure, this has a relationship to ideology, Marx argues that it obscures the real nature of production to satisfy human needs, a veil that will only be lifted by once production is carried out by “feely socialised man under their conscious, planned control.” But the Marxist view of ideology based on the nature of social life is not understood, far less developed, by Žižek.

For Žižek both the nature of ideology and the liberation of humanity is based on the idea of fantasy. For him, people’s relation to ideology-fantasy is “I know very well what I am doing but am I still doing it.” The project of liberation is not to end fantasy, but to replace it with a better fantasy, or to dream with the right desire.

Thus Žižek goes down the road of anarchist cliché, we should “be realistic, demand the impossible”, and he argues that the dream should not be of wanting the working class to awake, but that new dreams and revolution become a subjective act of will.

Žižek’s politics are, ultimately, mere fantasy.

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Warlord of the new world

July 28, 2013 at 8:04 pm (film, geeks, internet, Rosie B)

Having read all about Alex Gibney’s film Wikileaks: We steal secrets I went to see it, and recommend that everyone does. It was also great seeing a documentary in the cinema where you can’t be distracted, as when you watch something on the telly or the I-player at home.

The film shapes itself round the story of two men, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning.  At the beginning Assange appears admirable.  He’s a dedicated anti-establishment hacker and also a charmer, full of humour. You see him rising from smart-arse hacking in Australia – breaking into government systems because he can – to uncovering corrupt banking in Iceland. He and a couple of co-activists seem like heroes when they work together in a tiny house in Reykjavik to make a video of American soldiers killing Reuters journalists.  (The event had already been documented but it was the video that made the public impact).

Meanwhile Bradley Manning, an American soldier roasting in Iraq, is a figure of pathos.  In a civilian niche working with his considerable computing skills and hanging out with sympathetic friends he would have been fine. But he is a fish out of water, or as he says, “The CPU is not made for this motherboard”.  He finds himself, an effeminate guy with a conscience, in a highly macho environment holding a job which gives him to access to the reality of the war that the USA is carrying out in Afghanistan and Iraq. His sense of isolation, working on his computer in the desert and being horrified at the revelations of civilian casualties, is painful to watch. He starts leaking the material and that increases his loneliness. So he confides in a soul mate he met on-line, Adrian Lamo, who shopped him.

Everyone knows how these stories have panned out, with Assange stuck in the Ecuadorian embassy dodging rape charges and Manning on trial in a military court for aiding the enemy. As for Adrian Lamo, type his name on Google and you’ll get “snitch”.

Assange’s story is a comedy of ironies. He, a hacker with monikers, became a media celebrity with his face on Time magazine.  A transparency absolutist, he pressured his assistants to sign non-disclosure agreements. A pure anti-power activist began misusing his own power. He became an activist rock star who attracted groupies – and, it’s alleged, treated them as rock stars have often treated groupies.

Gibney got an interview with one of the women who made the rape allegations and of course like any woman who annoys males throughout the digital world, she was hideously targetted with rape threats and the usual vile stuff by some sites that would see themselves as progressive revolutionaries.

The most likable character to appear is James Ball, who volunteered to work for Wikileaks, got to know Assange’s modus operandi, and observes that Assange had the delusions of those working for a greater cause – that if they do wrong, it’s all right.  If he tells a lie, something he’s prone to do,  it’s a noble lie.  One of his on-line names was “Mendax”.

Wikileaks: We Steal Secrets is a fascinating story that suggests various themes. It sets up a dozen signposts that could be followed, as distinct from the Adam Curtis style, which acts like a SatNav bossing you along the journey of the theory with your only view being billboards of footage selected to illustrate the point. When Gibney’s witnesses talk about their experiences of transparency, of the power of the state and the organisations that challenge the state, or the flow of information that can empower the small as well as the large, they point to ideas that all could be profitably explored and which are as complex and as in the shades of grey as Wikileaks itself – though some of the USA’s activities are as black as can be.

Gibney touches briefly on Anonymous, the vigilante/resistance (depending on what they have done to you) loose group of hackers who did a DDoS sabotage of PayPal, Visa and MasterCard when the US governemnt was leaning on them to block donations to WikiLeaks. Anonymous form a power base of their own, and though they were right enough to sabotage illegitimate force by the USA government, they can start chucking their digital grenades at any net organisation who has displeased them politically – and your only redress is in fact via the government.  (They have now dumped Wikileaks since it became the Julian Assange show).

So this is the new world of the internet, where Assange was a warlord (or bandit, or outlaw) carrying out skirmishes against the empire. It’s only been in common use for about twenty years. The industrial revolution must have been like that. Suddenly there are new cities, and fast transport, whole different ways of working and whereas the average person once only knew their immediate neighbours, they could now seek out the like-minded. We have only just started to guess how the digital revolution is affecting political as well as cultural and personal life.  For Manning of course it was a disaster.  He made a friend online, and was betrayed online, and to those who don’t spend half their life online “friend” and “betrayal” where you have never met in the flesh may make no sense – but in fact they are emotional tangibilities in the digital world.

Assange knows the internet like a spy knows safe houses and the weak points of the fortress, and how a mechanic knows a car, and this specialized knowledge is one reason for his egomania. His life swimming in the digital world did give him a slightly fantastical way of engaging with the real world, and his superior knowledge of one system gave him an over-estimation of his political judgement, with a callousness about collateral damage as bad as a government’s.  He had his own political view of the war in Afghanistan, and those Afghans who collaborated with the Coalition forms were traitors (to the Taliban?) so never mind if they were killed by careless redacting of the leaked cables.

In fact, a cruel and unusual punishment for Assange would not to be cooped up in a flat in Knightsbridge with wi-fi, but to be given freedom to roam the United Kingdom – with no internet access. That would be virtual, and real, banishment.

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