Saturday, 5 October 2019

Citizen K

Alex Gibney is attracted to stories of power and the abuse of it. In Mea Maxima Culpa, he chronicled the long history of paedophilia in the Catholic Church, while The Armstrong Lie detailed the extravagant lies of cycling’s one-time hero.

Citizen K tracks the history of financial and political corruption in Moscow from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the start of democracy in Russia, to the present day. The central thesis is that Mikhail Khordokovsky, one of the seven notorious oligarchs, went through a conversion while in prison, from exploitative, manipulative and ruthless - perhaps even murderous - businessman to defender of democracy and hero of the people.

Gibney leaves space for disagreement, and I, for one, don’t buy it. While his depiction of Putin’s presidency as a dictatorship is clearly accurate - and hardly headline news - the extent of his sympathy for K at his sham trials is surprising. After all, K did make his vast wealth by exploiting the gullibility of the newly-capitalist Russian people who had no understanding of what was occurring. Yukos was expropriated from the people by unfair means; and the state took it back through an illegitimate courtroom. And so justice was served by means of its miscarriage.

Furthermore, the threat to the nascent democracy in Russia was directly attributable to the actions of the oligarchs. They bankrupted the state while making themselves vastly wealthy. And in order to sustain and increase their wealth, the oligarchs needed democracy to persist. Hence they corrupted Yeltsin when he was at his most corruptible, won re-election for him, and safeguarded the mechanisms by which they could appropriate yet more of the state’s assets.

When K boasts of the hundreds of millions of dollars at his disposal today with which to fight Putin from afar, Gibney’s narrative sounds a false note. K is not the knight in shining armour come to save the helpless people from an evil prince. This is a man hellbent on exacting vengeance from Putin for locking him up and taking away his toys; a man with political ambitions to top his financial potency; a man who calmly suggests that Putin should fear for his life.

K continues to corrupt democracy in Russia for his own means. He seeks to subvert the system with ill-gotten funds, providing finance for a theatre of protest to match the drama of Putin’s make-believe elections. And he would commit regicide in the name of democracy to grab power for himself.

The temptation must have been great to draw a classical narrative arc in which the hero undergoes trials, examines his conscience, and surfaces renewed. But the facts don’t fit the story, and Gibney has perhaps unwittingly become K’s apologist, and his messenger to Putin.

Gibney might see in K an ally against the man who inflicted Trump on the US. He dwells on Russian interference in the last election, going to some lengths to show how even ordinary Russians are fully aware of Putin’s role in bringing Trump to power. Putin is, therefore, a shared enemy, and so he gives K a clean bill of health. But if Gibney were completely convinced of K’s noble intentions, he would surely have omitted the footage that portrays K as an evidently compromised character.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

The film opens with a shot of Michael Keaton sitting cross legged in a pair of white underpants, hovering about a metre off the floor. And thus begins an awkward relationship between filmmaker and audience, as difficult as each relationship between the characters of the play. For the film is a play, as the full title of the film (Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) requires us to note, and the theatre within the film represents reality.

The opening moment of supernatural magic sets the scene for a film about a superhero. A quiet moment of solitude where our protagonist reflects on his condition. It's a standard scene in the genre. Here is one superhero who wonders how he got to this place. A place that smells of balls. What is this place? The Earth or this brick walled room? Or a state of mind? And are we talking about the balls barely concealed by his present attire? Or, metaphorically, the condition of mediocrity?

But that opening moment of wonder that the filmmaker has given us is fake. He isn't asking us, after all, to suspend our disbelief, as is required in viewing action adventures. We don't, at first, have any way of knowing this, since the play of the film is focalised on Thomas Riggan. Did the stage light fall because of his superpowers? Why doubt it, they haven't been called into question. Not yet.

It isn't until after Mike Shiner tells us "popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige" that the filmmaker reveals that those powers are the illusion of a fragile mind. A fading mind whose life work has been dedicated to creating popular entertainment for the audiences which, in turn, prefer to escape reality through fantasy than confront the painful truths of life. Admit it, Iñárritu demands, you were childishly drawn in by the magical fiction. And now we are to feel both wonderment and embarrassment at each delightful instance of fantasy.

Iñárritu isn't done mocking us yet. The relationship between daughter, underplayed with poise by Emma Stone, and her father stems from his failings, namely, as she tells us, he wasn't around and then tried to make up for it by trying to make her feel special. A line delivered without melodrama that confronts each member of the audience to reassess the true extent of one's parents' shortcomings.

On the other hand, Iñárritu helps us a little, signposting the role of the theatre within the film as the description of some sort of reality. As an aside, who doesn't come away wanting to explore the works of Raymond Carver? The description of a man trying and failing to take his life is echoed in Riggan's story delivered to his ex-wife about his own failed suicide attempt. A story that is both bathetic and ridiculous. Iñárritu chooses black comedy over slapstick, having his protagonist tell the story, rather than film it. Instead he shows a beautiful shot of the beach with the seagulls pecking at the helpless corpses of the washed up jellyfish. This is a modern film noir.

I wanted to see something positive in this story, an allegory of how unbearable pain helped ironically to avoid total destruction and led to a new beginning. But no. Riggan heads out to take his life again failing spectacularly and ridiculously. And yet to the immediate onlookers, and those connected through the fantastical nature of a world of social media, his failure is misinterpreted as an act of heroism. In today's currency, heroism is measured in the number of views on YouTube or followers on Twitter.

Affixed on Riggan's mirror is a small card which says: "a thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing". Riggan lambasts the Times critic for the lazy application of commonplace labels. Iñárritu urges us to work harder, to think harder.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

La Grande Bellezza

Toni Servillo in La Grande Bellezza
Toni Servillo as Jep Gambardella in La Grande Bellezza
In La Grande Bellezza, Sorrentino is altogether grander than in his previous works: the backdrop of Rome is more beautiful; the cinematography is more expansive; the clothes better tailored; and the music more elevating. So much so to contrast with the vulgarity of his protagonists and the ridicule with which he treats them. 

Never has Rome been shot in such beautiful light, with majestic vistas across its ancient rooftops and sumptuous scenes within the regal palazzos. They are accompanied all the while by the haunting chants of the a cappella choir. 

Then at once we are cast amongst the throngs of debauched revellers, all grotesque misfits. The thumping rhythms are motivating but the gyrations of the bloated, aged crowd are weird, even disturbing to watch. 

The judgment that Sorrentino passes on the populo Romano is damning. There is no great beauty: the pursuit of it is in vain. Yet in delivering his sentence, Sorrentino indulges in a far greater and darker humour than what he allows in Il Divo or the Consequences of Love. 

Toni Servillo continues to play Sorrentino's mouthpiece with ever more fluency, pouring out his lines with the deadpan flow that we've come to enjoy. Sorrentino, however, punctuates his delivery: the monologue revealed in the film's trailer, when Jep tells of his arrival in the great city and the whirl of its highlife, is broken up in the film with a the honk of a passing tourist riverboat and the foul-mouthed rantings of oncoming joggers. He will not allow the futility of his characters' lives to attain a sense of meaningful purpose. 

Sorrentino is as despondent of the state of his countrymen as Sam Mendes showed himself to be of his own nation in American Beauty. Yet he offers perhaps some hope. Since what lies beyond is out of our reach, there is the capacity to make something of the nothingness of our wretched situation. Where Flaubert failed to write a novel about nothing, Sorrentino has succeeded in creating a work that both despises and celebrates it.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Quiet Zone

I saw "Quiet Zone" on the door, hesitated an instant, then quickly jumped on board. I could do with an hour and a half of calm.

As I found my seat, the woman in the seat behind mine was loudly talking on her phone while her travel companion, her daughter I presumed, sitting two seats back, shrieked instructions on what to say.

She ended the call and then a child, also travelling with her, began moaning about some trivial absent need. I took a deep breath and moved five rows up the train. Here were solo travellers quietly reading their newspapers.

As the train moved off, the announcements started.

"If you're travelling to Lower Clefton, Upper Pointon or Scraggy Bottom, move to the front five carriages. Also at Shepherds Surgaton, the platforms are short... blah blah blah. Blah blah blah. And more blah blah blah."

When the automatic announcement ended, the train conductor repeated the same helpful messages. And added that the first stop would be at 12.47.

Finally, the voices stopped. Only to be replaced by the scrunching of plastic packaging. And just as those eaters finished, the buffet trolley came through.

"Mum," shouted the harpe, "do you want anyfink to drink?"

She had moved up to my row.

Soon more plastic packaging was torn apart. The stench of reheated food and the crunch of crisps eaten with open mouth ensured that no tranquility was available on this train.

The conductor came through loudly checking tickets and repeating his instructions about where to sit for x, y and z stations.

Then that damned child started hooting in some perverse initation of a dying hyena enacting its last wish to sing before being executed by quartering.

I turned to my iPhone to bring me distraction from the distraction that I'd sought from my iPhone.

And relax.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Call it a death wish, if you like

Marathon des Sables
Late last year, it suddenly dawned on me that what I really want to do is run the Marathon des Sables, a mad venture involving six marathons back-to-back across the Sahara.

But first...

OK, so the decision is easy to make, sticking to it and getting out to the desert is somewhat harder. There are no places for another three years and I have time to get fit, gradually building up the distance.

So I'm doing a half-marathon in September, the Great North Run. I'm under no obligation but I'd like to raise some funds for Alzheimer's Society. Please give what you can...

Friday, 22 May 2009

The MBA versus the crazy old witch

Scott Adams has been taking a dig at MBAs this week...

Have a great Bank Holiday weekend!

Friday, 20 February 2009

Lemon mousse

A wonderful, refreshing dessert after a good dinner.

Serves 4

  • 250ml double cream
  • Juice of one lemon
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 3 heaped dessert spoons sugar
  • 2 egg whites

  1. Whisk up the cream, lemon zest and sugar just until it begins to thicken.
  2. Then add the lemon juice and whisk a little more. But don't let it get too thick.
  3. Whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks, add to the cream mixture and fold in.
  4. Spoon into 4 small bowls or glasses and put in the fridge to chill.