Monthly Archives: December 2006

  • The Last King of Scotland – Kevin MacDonald

    Slide to porn
    The contemporary Western action thriller is on a dead end trip with nowhere to go other than towards the pornography of violence and sex. It’s a clapped out genre trapped in a logical cul de sac of is own making. The genre has nothing to say; it has nothing to show other than a series of gestural posturing; it has nothing to reveal. All that is left to the genre at this stunted stage of its expressive cycle is the slide down the incline of images of sex and violence(in the end the two become culturally interchangeable and indistinguishable). These images obey the laws of decreasing returns. Consequently directors of productions of this type (like those of hardcore pornography) are locked into a struggle against the constant devaluation of shock value, and scriptwriters must work hard to devise and invent ever new variations and graphic representations of sex and pain. They say it’s what we want. The Last King of Scotland – Kevin MacDonald – USA/UK 2006: Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy
    Viewed: Tyneside Cinema at Gateshead Town Hall; free Bafta Preview screening

    Slide to porn
    The contemporary Western action thriller is on a dead end trip with nowhere to go other than towards the pornography of violence and sex.  It’s a clapped out genre trapped in a logical cul de sac of is own making.  The genre has nothing to say; it has nothing to show other than a series of  gestural posturing; it has nothing to reveal.  All that is left to the genre at this stunted stage of its expressive cycle is the slide down the incline of images of sex and violence(in the end the two become culturally interchangeable and indistinguishable).  These images obey the laws of decreasing returns. Consequently directors of productions of this type (like those of hardcore pornography) are locked into a struggle against the constant devaluation of shock value, and scriptwriters must work hard to devise and invent ever new variations and graphic representations of sex and pain.  They say it’s what we want.   

    LKS is a case in point. You can film against exotic locations, such as Uganda; you can set the action background against a period of historical notoriety such as Amin’s dictatorship; but ultimately LKS is on a journey whose only purpose is to initiate a slide down to the inevitable images intended to gratify a retinal lust for blood.  LKS from its first frame seems intent on drawing me towards  two images:  Kay Amin dead and naked on a slab legs spread wide so I can see the butchered meat that once was her  sex.  Idi Amin says to Nick: “ We found her clitoris halfway down her throat – you don’t expect that…” a piece of dialogue introduced just in case I don’t get it.  Second image – Nick (protagonist) – gets the meat hook treatment. In Big Close Up,  hooks are inserted into his flesh under his nipples(A Man Called Horse) and attached to rope so that he can be hoisted up and hung from a beam like a carcass.  LKS is revealed as film that is simply an exercise in the delivery of these sexual mutilations/titillations.  These are the points of the delivery, as banal and meaningless as they are central to the impoverished ethos of the film. With these two images Kevin MacDonald underscores the fact that his film has been nowhere and has nowhere to go.    

    At the heart of LKS is the role of the camera and the performance of James McAvoy as Nick.  Forest Whitaker plays Idi Amin but this is acting as impersonation.  It is Nick whom the film asks us to watch through the camera instructions of the director, and this is the core of the film’s weakness.   All we do is that we watch Nick.  The camera watches and Nick reacts or doesn’t, depending on the situation.   James McAvoy is  simply an object seen through a lens.  The camera has no other vocabulary other than object fixation and as the film develops this poverty of camera is evidenced in shot repetition and decline in filmic tension as there are not sufficient camera and shooting vocabulary to build the type of meanings that create oppositions.  The film develops into a repetitive flatness of sound and image with none of the psychic foldings that give tension to life.  A film that has as potential theme the idea of an individual trapped through his own conceit in an increasingly terrifying amoral spiral of descent cannot work unless we see what Nick sees; we have to be able to see some events from his point of view in order to weigh his understanding of each act of moral equivilence .  We have to see the change that he sees in each step of his relationship with Amin.    The shooting style that comprises a series of action cuts in the end just delivers a sort of puppet show.

    In response to this situation James McAvoy’s performance is in one sense clown like. Nick as a sort of clown in Idi’s circus – except the range of McAvoy’s clown is strictly limited.  McAvoy’s act is a sort of invariant gestural and facial response to all situations presented by the script.   It seems like another instance of actors being turned into simplistic foils of the director or the script using talent to bounce the action through.  When the actor is used as a reflective agent the usual demand on the actors is that they have a sort of default facial set.  Repressed menace, inscrutability and wide eyed innocence are common facial sets employed as monodimensional devices in film.  In LKS McAvoy adopts set features suggesting a sort of jocular Scottish innocence.  Although the ingenuous faciality undergoes a change in function as it moves from being an initial reaction to novelty of place to a frozen response to the gaze of Amin.  a means of controlling expressive leakage.    The limited range of McAvoy’s performance, the stunted vocabulary of the camera work deliver a film in which interest in any ideas quickly atrophies, tensions dies because there are no oppositions either structural or formal.  The audience are left with a film that slides to porn in the mechanistic working out of plot.

    LKS is set in Africa but there is no feeling for Africa in the film either as a subjectivity or an objectivity.  Africa is simply a background for a circus, a comic book place filled out with the usual stereotyped characters and images.  There is no sense of otherness, just the presentation of an African dystopia more or less decontextualised from its colonial heritage.   The problem when a location is used simply a backdrop is that contrived situations and contrived characters reinforce negative perceptions and prejudices.  LKS joins a list of films that exploit their locations as a cheap means of both claiming a kind of contrived authenticity(LKS has the almost obligatory period news reel montage near the front of the film as a means of laying claim to political/ humanist concerns) and giving a real feel to the contrived action. However I think that film makers from the Western colonial countries that first exploited Africa for its raw materials and then carved it out into politically and ethnically convenient but disastrous sections of the map, should feel shame at returning there to continue another chapter of exploitation.      
    adrin neatrour

  • I saw Ben Barka get Killed – Serge Le Peron

    A deadly interest in film making
    There has been a recent interest by Western film makers in looking at Europe’s psychic inheritance in relation to our responsibility for both colonialism and the effects of our retreat from direct colonial rule. The question can be posed as to whether this interest is anything more than superficial, using history as a hook on which to hang the plots of action movies, exploiting exotic backgrounds or notorious events for their dramatic impact. Haneka’s Hidden both in style and narrative form examines the consequences of the massacre of Algerians in Paris in 1959. Politics is at the heart of Hidden which is located in Paris as is Le Peron’s more recent Ben Barka movie.I saw Ben Barka get Killed  – Serge Le Peron    Fr /Morrocco/ Sp 2005 Charles Berling 
    Tyneside Cinema 5 11 06 ticket £6-20

     A deadly interest in film making
    There has been a recent interest by Western film makers in looking at Europe’s psychic inheritance in relation to our responsibility for both colonialism and the effects of our  retreat from direct colonial rule.  The question can be posed as to whether this interest is anything more than superficial, using history as a hook on which to hang the plots of action movies,  exploiting exotic backgrounds or notorious events for their dramatic  impact.  Haneka’s Hidden both in style and narrative form examines the consequences of the massacre of Algerians in Paris in 1959.   Politics is at the heart of Hidden which is located in Paris as is Le Peron’s more recent Ben Barka movie.

    The opening sequence of le Peron’s film leads to the discovery of the narrator’s corpse lieing on the floor of a house whilst the police conduct a disinterested scene of crime routine.  A full on ‘60’s style jazz score accompanies the next sequence which is a fast paced montage of 50’s archive film political in content which features images of Mao Castro Khruschev and scenes of political protest.  I saw Ben Barka get Killed seems to be setting out its stall with a claim for political relevance, but this grainy montage footage represents the high water mark  of the films commitment to either history or politics.  As the montage moves from one political event to another, from Mao to Africa there are no explanations, no contexts: just images.   For younger watchers the pictures may well mean very little.  But the scratchy archival quality of the film clips and the situations that they record signifies protestation in general against the interests of the West.  The archive montage works as a sort of posturing of the films political pretensions, a sequence in a film that never develops into anything more than a piece of stylised political posing.   Like a haircut.

    Ben Barka,  about whom the movie’s assassination plot revolves, is not explained in any meaningful way.  What did Ben Barka stand for?  What interests ranged against him?  The film is never clear on these basic underlying details.  Instead Ben Barka is simply represented as a good man.   Those who opposed him were bad men,.  Ben Barka is a man unsullied by the corruption of the powerful forces which oppose him.    Without adequate context Ben Barka slips away as a real person and becomes a summation of idealistic yearnings.   But as Ben Barka slides into myth, it is clear that the film is not about politics it is about attitudes, a stylistic gloss on the early sixties that uses a political disappearance to justify a gangster movie.   I saw Ben Barka get Killed (ISBBGK) is a mannered stylistic exercise whose use of politics is to provide a superficial retro glam background to what is a classy looking thiller….a thriller that works on its own terms. But apparently has an allegorical subtext.

    Whilst ISBBGK doesn’t work as a film with political pretensions it does encode a moral allegory about the nature of film making.  In the plot, narrated by the dead main protagonist , the film producer, both he and his subject – Ben Barka – end up dead, both murdered by a notional film that is never made.  The film’s plot relates how a small time crook – with artistic friends – is set up as a patsy film producer in order to lure Ben Barka to Paris so that he can be murdered by his enemies.  Interestingly the structure of the plot, and its use of the idea of film as a lure,  opens up the field of ethical dimensions that underlie much documentary film making.  Ethical and moral considerations that rarely see light.  Many documentary films are the result of a  collusive relationship between the makers and their subjects.  The film makers want to make their films.  That’s what they do; they have agendas and commit resources to their projects.  They also desire to make films that arouse interest that have strong characters and outstanding characteristics.  To achieve their production criteria they endeavour to take as much control as possible over the material they shoot; so that only they the film makers can decide its final form.  Often this process leads to the film makers practicing a series of deceptions on their subjects.  Deceptions can be more or less malign or benign but their point is to enhance the film by maximising the power of the producer.  Subjects too have their own agendas.  If they have the resources either in wit and intelligence or power and wealth, they can sometimes succeed in making their story into the film’s story.  To accomplish this they also have to engage in the practice of deception, deception of the film makers.  But whichever way the balance of power lies in the movie, many documentary films are the product of tacit understandings, of the desires in play, between the two parties involved during the making of the film.  And of course these tacit understandings can return to haunt both parties.  In the case of the Ben Barka movie the tacit understandings lead to the deaths of both the protagonists.

    As a metatextual statement, ISBBGK works much better a moral comment on the nature of film making than it does as a political statement.  This however does seem to be an oblique reading of the movie.  Perhaps if Le Peron had brought this aspect a little further to the fore, he might have made a clearer political statement within the stylistic parameters that he wished to work.  Film can be a deadly enterprise for all parties.

  • Children of Men, dir. Alfonso Cuaron (UK, 2006)

    Slouching Towards Bexhillem, by Tom Jennings.
    Review published in Freedom magazine, Vol. 67, No. 22, November 2006Slouching Towards Bexhillem  by Tom Jennings 
    [film review published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 23, December 2006]
    Children Of Men, dir. Alfonso Cuarón
    This latest blockbuster from Mexican film-maker Cuarón paints an ominous picture of the near future, with a global virus having left humanity infertile. Bulldog Britain somehow soldiers on, demonising tidal waves of illegal immigrants escaping societal meltdown everywhere else, its increasingly totalitarian government trumping the public’s despair at impending extinction with internal terror and short-term ‘homeland security’ repression while benevolently distributing ‘Quietus’ self-euthanasia kits for those who don’t succumb to ‘day of judgement’ fundamentalism. As the upper classes numbly barricade themselves in to brazen out armageddon, a rag-tag resistance dodges the security forces around an exceedingly grubby and battered but recognisable London, in which death squads, random bombings and cages full of foreigners on their way to incarceration litter the rubbish-filled streets. So far, so tantalising.
    Awoken from drunken disillusionment by reminders of personal tragedies past, Clive Owen’s cynical civil servant Theo then flip-flops around the Home Counties trying to save the world’s only pregnant woman, fetching up in Bexhill-on-Sea rendered as a monstrous concentration/refugee camp. Their flight is captured in superb action sequences with bravura handheld single-takes, modulated with sentimental moments of stillness amidst the bloodbath as the unexpected sight and sound of infancy resurrects human caring among military, rebels and bystanders alike. However, the narrative is far less daring than its filming. Whereas V For Vendetta scuppered every ounce of political nous in its literary source, crime writer P.D. James’ similarly dystopian novel had none to start with – the magnificent set design and cinematography here representing a journeyman director doing the stylistic best of a bad job in terms of depth.
    So, opposition to the fascist state from the urban guerilla ‘Fishes’ (i.e. the symbol used by clandestine early Christians) signposts the messianic underbelly of moral politics. This rainbow coalition of former anti-war, civil rights and green activists is riven with ‘broad front’ contradictions – only demanding human rights for refugees; yet launching armed insurrection! Utterly lacking the sociopolitical underpinnings to wring interesting speculation from its pandemic/police state scenario, Children Of Men’s naff nativity parable crumbles into faith in scientific progress – the mythical ‘Human Project’ run by “the best brains in the world” on the good ship ‘Tomorrow’. Cuarón twists James’ high-church, high-Tory spiritual self-flagellation, echoing John Wyndham or J.G. Ballard’s bleakly bilious postwar UK sci-fi critiques of bourgeois anomie. The redemptive convergence of rationalist wishful-thinking with pseudo-religious ethical superiority, promising salvation from the jackboot, is instead its shoehorn – with the blind liberal management of capitalism actively fostering disaster. Theo’s death delivering (Black refugee) madonna and (female) child to safety then merely finesses the conclusion that middle-class heroism (physical or philosophical) – like this film – can suggest no solutions.

  • Red Road – Andrea Arnold – UK 2006 – Kate Dickie,

    Twitching nets on desolation row = no mirrors

    The film opens with dulled desaturated out of focus pictures beamed from the cctvs scattered around Glasgow into a control room where they are policed by Jackie. The world of surveillance that is established in the opening sequence doesn’t open up any ideas about multiple actualities or the nature of closed circuit realities: rather it closes down into one reality. In Red Road Andrea Arnold makes the monitor into a simple window, like the window of a house in a working class terrace behind which the wife spies on the street, unseen behind her twitching nets. It would have been more interesting if it had been more like a mirror……
    Red Road – Andrea Arnold – UK 2006 – Kate Dickie,
    Viewed Tyneside Film Theatre 13 11 06 Ticket price £6-20
    Twitching nets on desolation row = no mirrors
    The film opens with dulled desaturated out of focus pictures beamed from the cctvs scattered around Glasgow into a control room where they are policed by Jackie.    The world of surveillance that is established in the opening sequence doesn’t open up any ideas about multiple actualities or the nature of closed circuit realities: rather it closes down into one reality.  In Red Road Andrea Arnold makes the monitor into a  simple window, like the window of a house in a working class terrace behind which the wife spies on the street, unseen behind her twitching nets. It would have been more interesting if it had been more like a mirror…….
    In Red Road the monitors are a blind, a device to conceal the fact that this is an old type of story dressed up in modern techno wear with a fashionable backdrop of gritty lumpen dereliction.  We can tell they that the TVs are not real monitors because their nature changes all the time: sometimes they deliver blurred indistinct images, sometimes they have the clarity of HDTV.   The quality of image provided by the monitors is a function of the needs of the plot.   The plot itself has a mechanical quality.  As it develops it’s as if the script writer had used one of those models of psychological adaptation used by people like grief counsellors mapping the course of recovery from the trauma of loss or grief: charting the states of mind experienced by victims as they move from the inability to accept their situaiton, through to seeking revenge, through to acceptance and finally through to compassion.  Such a model may be a useful guide to helping people with their grief or dieing as long as the model is understood simply as model.  When it informs the shape of a script it gives the production a mechanical format and a lack of tension, de-energising the actors who are all sent down a one way street that is to  lead from the beginning to the end of the story. 
    The effect of mechanical plotting is particularly constricting for the cast who have nowhere to go except where they’re told, no avenues to explore except those the director approves.   For the actors the production turns into a game of pleasing(rather than challenging)the director with an appropriate performance note.  I think there is a notion about their roles shared by many Brit directors that draws heavily on the auteur idea.  There is a belief that the director is a sort of lone genius who has a vision that they struggle to get realised.   The film comes to be seen as the sort of brave act of creation by a single person.  In fact film is production by a collectivity.  Every single person in the production has contribution, including of course the cast.  The monopaced monochrome and monoexpressive performance of Kate Dickie belies the instructions of her director.  The relationship between Dickie and Arnold looks on screen as if it’s too cosy too collusive as if the objective of the film was to tell the prearranged predetermined story not to make active film. 
    Red Road like many recent British films is desperate to claim an authenticity of place, a sort of legitimising carapace.  The characterising look is desolate urban scapes at the centre of which is the eponymous Red Road high rise on Glasgow’s peripheral belt.  But the use of the desolation settings is purely as backdrops, exploited for their production values.  Red Road never becomes a world in its own right either mythic or actual.  For a couple of sequences centred about the entry to the tower the film strains to overcome its realist stylistic frame: when Jackie enters the tower the tracking shots that comprise the sequence convey the atmosphere of a sort of fairy tale.  The tower becomes a scary den of Wolf or Troll (Red Riding Hood?) which the heroine has to penetrate in order to obtain the precious treasure.  The fairy tale aspect of the film in these sections is obviously an angle explored by the film, but it’s never developed and is dropped as quickly as it is taken up in favour of cod realism and the overdetermined nature of the narrative.      
    The plot, built around a revenge motif never develops sustained tension between its parts.  This is not so much because it’s easy to guess the missing details that are laboriously patently and crudely withheld from the audience in order to try to give the story some narrative oppositions.  The lack of tension is related to the direction itself, the choice made to make a certain sort of realist production and the way in which the film has been composed out of its series of set ups and shots.  Arnold seems unable to sustain shots of any length that might have the energy to create their own temporal or spacial hold on the audience.  The film sometimes looks like it has been desperately rescued in the edit.  The cutting from shot to shot, the use of close up serves to direct the face of the audience to where the director believes we should be led.   But the banality of – shot – reaction –  shot – leaves the film bereft of edge and inventiveness. 
    The plot itself is a vehicle crippled by inconstancies and implausibility’s.  Some of these highlight the discrepant elements in the film, the mythic subsumed by the realist,that conspire to work against each other.  For instance when Jackie emerges from one visit to  the high rise she goes to catch her bus back home.  As she climbs aboard to pay the driver she realises that she has lost her purse.  She fumbles in bag and pockets and realising she hasn’t the money to pay for her ticket asks to be carried for free.  At this point the film loses its plot.   The loss of her purse is glossed over by Jackie, who reacts to the event by ignoring its significance.  A purse isn’t just any personal appurtenance. It is the most deeply personal, containing the core of identity being and sexuality.  When you return from  the troll’s den and discover that you’ve left your purse behind this is an event that changes everything that puts something within you at risk. To dismiss the loss as an unfortunate accident is  a sign that in service to the demands and machinations of the script, you have left your film behind.  And perhaps your soul.   The only function of the incident is to set up later sequences in the film.
    Red Road feels like a film that is constantly falling between stools, wanting to have everything all ways.  It wants to be a little bit mythic in its story but it mostly wants to be realist.  A sort of mixture of Cocteau and Ken Loach.  It wants its heroine finally to be a good woman and do the right thing; it wants its villain to be ultimately a good man.  Everyone in the end is good and does the right thing.   Red Road ends up like bland TV programme trying to please everyone.  Somewhere withinin the genesis of the film  is a strong idea seeking expression that is never realised.
    adrin neatrour  –

  • Mischief Night, dir. Penny Woolcock (UK, 2006)

    A Midautumn Night’s Dream, by Tom Jennings.
    Film review published in Freedom magazine, Vol. 68, No. 2, January 2007
    A Midautumn Night’s Dream  by Tom Jennings 
    [film review published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 2, January 2007]
    Mischief Night, dir. Penny Woolcock, UK, 2006
    Its writer/director wanted Mischief Night to be ‘a very silly film about very serious issues’. Tom Jennings judges it spot on.
    Penny Woolcock’s Channel 4 stories set in Leeds (Tina Goes Shopping, 1999; Tina Takes A Break, 2001) located their Cutting Edge credentials in characters and events being fictionalised from the laboriously recorded experiences of estate residents, who also provided the casts. However, an equally radical departure was to carefully depict the everyday life of the UK urban deprived, rather than merely their reactions to the crises and traumas which social realist melodrama normally agonises about. Instead emphasising the resourcefulness, humour and inventiveness of a contemporary underclass struggling to stay materially and emotionally afloat, the films reportedly inspired Paul Abbott to embellish his biographical reminiscences into Shameless – with the latter’s success prompting its production company to commission the cinematic completion of the Tina trilogy in Mischief Night.
    The film’s 2005 shoot coincided with the London bombings and subsequent police activity in Beeston (where three of the perpetrators came from and who some of the street-cast actors knew), adding immediacy to the intention to understand and undermine through comedy the increasing spatial and educational segregation of British Asians from their neighbours. The drama develops from the legacies of far closer interaction a few years ago, centering on the redoubtable Tina Crabtree (Kelli Hollis) striving for a secure home set-up for her three kids (by different fathers: “all wankers”). Their various preoccupations yield multiple storylines and diverse connections with the equally embattled, fractious and conflicted Khan family from across Crossflats Park in the days leading up to November 4th – the annual Mischief Night sanctioning relatively benign juvenile delinquency (egged cars, soaped windows, flaming dogshit) to complement the more mundane pervasive disrespect and darker anti-sociability of drugs, racism, crime and violence.
    With design and cinematography magnifying social warmth and vitality in the area despite its divisions, the bhangra and new beats soundtrack similarly militates against grey grim cliché as the wit and mayhem accelerate and resolve into a generational contrast of multiracial hope. Ex-con waiter Immie (Ramon Tikaram) and Tina rekindle their adolescent romance to escape unhappy situations, requiring decisive breaks with backward-looking traditions – him leaving his family and her escaping the cycle of community despair presided over by her dad, crime boss Don (Gwynne Hollis). Meanwhile, young teenagers Kimberley and Asif (Holly Kenny and Qasim Akhtar) pursue their own quests, which converge on Immie’s old mate, druglord Qassim (Christopher Simpson). They succeed only by forging a more open friendship based on mutual generosity, a desire for autonomy, and an awareness of the limitations of parental choices – working-through rather than wishing-away the toxic power relations of the past in serving the needs of the future.
    Looking for deterministic narrative arcs rather misses the point, however – an urge itself obliquely lampooned in the Big Men’s hot air ballooning fetish. This deft condensation of joyriding, lifestyle aspiration, and the Northern kitchen sink ritual of climbing the hill and looking down on the town, leaves Don and his lieutenants flailing out of control of their territory. The flight ends impaled on the mosque tower, thus crudely counterposing failed Western secular dreams of mastery to the comparable impotence of the Muslim hierarchy in dealing with today’s complexities. Here the elders enlist Qassim’s criminal muscle to repel takeover by fundamentalists  (whose imam’s ridiculous sermonising is taken verbatim from Abu Hamza speeches). Throughout the film such plot absurdities likewise signal the humility of the film-maker in relinquishing authorial omnipotence – instead bravely weaving the weft and warp of meticulously collected grass-roots anecdotes, banter and repartee to demolish pretension, free up energy and facilitate agency.
                    Fittingly, the children’s exploration of Mischief Night’s mysterious adult world provides most of the bite, blithely juggling real danger and heartache with naïve sass and insight. Macauley (Tina’s youngest) and friends grapple with the insanities of respectability (“My mam’s a smackhead”. “Mine’s a dinner-lady”), attracted to the relatively well-off ‘Death Row’ whose denizens – paedophiles, gangsters, lesbians – mythically link poshness with perversion. While joyrider Asif views Osama bin Laden screensavers and jihad videos as comic relief from being pressganged into drug-dealing, Tyler’s apprenticeship to grandad Don entails blundering around junkie mums and courier grans. And whereas Kimberley eventually shoots her newly-found Pakistani father, Immie’s younger sister Sarina articulates her transcendence of patriarchy in the local urban music nightclub – a temporary autonomous zone where lower-class youth of all races enjoy their own hybrid culture in relative peace away from the vexing intransigence elsewhere.
    Cross-matching and cross-fertilising the corrosive fissures and prejudices of white and Asian communities, the film’s hilarity consistently erodes stereotypes by remaining rooted in working-class neighbourhoods. Here, despite intense material pressures, upward mobility’s false promises are just as destructive as the baleful allure of the law of the criminal jungle in crystallising vicious circles of isolation. The desperate rearguard defence of ancestral families provides no inoculation, merely locking the generations into perpetual misery and the submission to oppression which carnival has always had the function of momentarily overturning. In fact, though now celebrated only in Yorkshire, the druidic origins of Mischief Night – a time when fairies walk the earth – predate Hallowe’en and Guy Fawkes by many centuries. While hardly supernatural, the outcomes of this highly unusual urban fairytale, “with its head in the clouds and its feet on the ground” (Woolcock), might also seem somewhat improbable. Nevertheless, its ambitious alchemy – of pragmatic irreverence for authority, laughing-off of adversity, and imaginative empathy and engagement – updates age-old formulae for survival, solidarity and resistance which are still applicable throughout the land.

  • Confidential, by M1 and Can’t Sell Dope Forever, by Dead Prez & Outlawz

    Zero Sum Game, by Tom Jennings.
    Music review published in Freedom magazine, Vol. 67, No. 22, November 2006
    Zero Sum Game  by Tom Jennings 
    [music review published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 22, November 2006]
    A slew of new Dead Prez releases deepen and diversify revolutionary US hip-hop
    A two-year hiatus following the landmark RBG: Revolutionary But Gangsta (reviewed in Freedom, 15th May, 2004) ends with several projects from far-left hip-hop duo Dead Prez. Despite RBG’s success, and endorsement from rap mogul Jay-Z, Sony dropped them after swallowing Loud Records. Independent moves now yield M1’s debut, two mixtapes with the Outlawz,’s The Art of Emcee-ing how-to book+CD and his forthcoming album. Their trajectory reinforces the cross-pollination of post-Panther rebellion with street-level music and class-based ‘reality’ rap. So M1 has produced for other artists (including Mississippi’s David Banner), established publishing company ‘War of Art’ (punning on Sun-Tzu), toured with Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface, and signed with jazz guitarist/producer Fabrizio Sotti for Confidential.
    The resulting melange of R&B melodies and hooks (satisfyingly rendered by the legendary Cassandra Wilson and newcomer Raye) mixes current NY, West coast, and dirty South club hip-hop beats in a succesful lyrical-musical synthesis thanks to guest MCs like Styles P (ex-The Lox) on ‘Comrade’s Call’, ATCQ’s Q-Tip on the sexual politics tip (‘Love You Can’t Borrow’), and rising star Somalian refugee K’naan (soulful lead single ‘Til We Get There’) – as well as M1’s own mother (fresh from 12 years inside for drugs offences) on the thoughtfully downbeat ‘Land, Bread & Housing’. These strategies dovetail with thematic subterfuge, thinly-veiling revolutionary rhetoric in everyday stories – a sonic populism ‘making sense’ rather than ‘intellectualising’. The title track links  repression in the present and the 70s while celebrating contemporary resistance:
    “If you’re looking for Assata Shakur, she’s right here /
    It’s her, me and 2-Pac over here, having a beer /
    Cheers – a toast to a lovely revolution!”
    And if the Dead Prez tactics recall 2-Pac’s stillborn ‘conscious thug’ project, ‘Don’t Put Down Your Flag’ explicitly preaches gang unity in the wider struggle, whereas ‘Til We Get There’ captures the overall thrust of anger combined with hopefulness:
    [M1] “That’s what’s called solidarity /
    When we struggle it’s therapy, after chaos we get clarity /
    My enemy’s enemy is my man, remember? /
    I ain’t tryin’ to be endin’ up in this man’s dilemma /
    We only here for a minute – it’s what you make it, so live it /
    See, I’m a ryder and I’m gonna be remembered /
    For those of you not born, to those of you not here /
    I wish you the best and that’s real” …
    “This ain’t ya average, when they portray us they say ‘all savages’ /
    ‘Cause we have it, blast it, won’t stash it /
    ‘Cause we fight to the death and manage /
    To makes songs of struggle and to habits /
    And damn it, if I don’t get even /
    It’s chant down Babylon season /
    Die for New Orleans to Cleveland /
    ‘Til we even, we not believin’.”
    With M1 positioning himself as a remotely radio-friendly quasi-mainstream rapper, and California’s Outlawz explore inner-city Black youth career options in two mixtapes: Soldier 2 Soldier fruitfully deploys military themes, tropes and metaphors to powerful effect, but Can’t Sell Dope Forever is more fully accomplished in dissecting the deadly fascination with the drugs game. The subject has intimate resonance with all concerned – several of the Outlawz are former dealers, including Young Noble whose mother and brother were both addicts. Also involved are Stormey, Kastro and Edi Don (ex-members include Napoleon and Fatal, with 2-Pac and Khadafi both murdered), the group being most famous for Still I Rise (1999). They have a long-standing collaborative ethic, though usually stressing the ‘gangsta’ side of the equation – but with Stic, they’re serious.
    Can’t Sell’s opener, ‘1Nation’, straightforwardly frames the problem as gang versus class war:
    “Listen up, all these guns we got between us /
    We can point ‘em the right way and come the fuck up /
    Dope money and turf ain’t worth your life /
    Doing it for the struggle, that’s how you earn your stripes”.
    The title track sympathetically fleshes out the cold-hearted reality:
    [Young Noble] “It ain’t too many dope dealers retiring /
    It ain’t too many old prostitutes vacationing on the islands /
    Instead of knock ‘em down, my focus is to inspire ‘em …
    … But he ain’t got no job, and she on welfare /
    All he do is go rob, she do the blowjobs /
    For ‘06 Bonnie and Clyde, life is so hard …
    … We need some motivation, we need some inspiration /
    We need to be more creative in our ways to get paper /
    The block will have your ass in a box for your duration …
    … “Homie, I ain’t tryin’ to preach to you, I’m just sayin’ /
    The government the bigger gang, and they ain’t playin’ …
    Later, ‘Like a Window’ has agonising over his junkie brother, musing on the interests ultimately served:
    “It’s a war even though they don’t call it a war /
    It’s chemical war unleashed on the Black and the poor /
    And who benefits? The police, lawyers and judges /
    The private-owned prison industry with federal budgets /
    All them products in the commissary /
    Tell me who profits – it’s obvious /
    And it’s going too good for them to stop it”.
    Finally, ‘Believe’ succinctly critiques consumerism and decisively reconnects the political-economic analysis to daily life:
    “You ain’t gotta smoke crack to be a fiend /
    A fiend is just somebody who’s addicted, it could be anything /
    Too many of us addicted to the American Dream /
    We’re high from the lies on the TV screen /
    We’re drunk from the poison that they’re teachin’ in school /
    And we’re junkies from the chemicals they put in the food”.
    With Dead Prez proving the potency of political street-cred over banging beats, veteran G-Funk raptivist Paris also steps up alongside an astonishing array of old- and new-school, hardcore and conscious artists on Hard Truth Soldiers, Vol I; and, somewhat bizarrely, produced and wrote the lyrics for Public Enemy’s misfiring Rebirth Of A Nation (check So, suburban white middle-class subcultures may be abandoning hip-hop, and all manner of self-righteous haters delight in pronouncing it dead. Meanwhile, the momentum grows of an unholy lowlife alliance of bling-obsessed narcissists, psychotic nihilists, and prophets of organised revolt. I know who I’m listening to …
    Confidential by M1 (CD/DVD) is out now on Koch Records. Can’t Sell Dope Forever (Affluent Records) and Soldier 2 Soldier (Real Talk Entertainment) by Dead Prez & Outlawz are available on import.

  • Volver, dir. Pedro Almodovar (Spain 2006)

    Women’s Troubles, by Tom Jennings.
    Film review published in Freedom magazine, Vol. 67, No. 21, November 2006Women’s Troubles  by Tom Jennings 
    [film review published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 21, November 2006]
    Volver, dir. Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 2006 (English subtitles)
    Pedro Almodóvar’s early trash aesthetic exemplified the exuberant post-Franco cultural renaissance in Spain, juggling marginal sexualities, misfits and fuck-ups to subvert bourgeois morality like an Iberian Warhol or John Waters. From a recurrent motif of the performative nature of identity – where destructive impulses mingle with liberatory expressive yearnings in the pursuit of happiness – he has developed a unique cinematic language of character and motivation, recalling Hitchcock and Bunuel but favouring decidedly downmarket narratives. Consistently flouting all social, artistic, moral and political conventions (of Left and Right), and despite leading calls for withdrawal from the Iraq war, he is usually touted as apolitical, preoccupied with fashion and celebrity; his films dismissed as superficial. So, variously seen as enjoyably trivial, crowd-pleasing but conservative, or lazy postmodern whimsy, his sixteenth feature Volver (Spanish for ‘return’) stars Penelope Cruz (fresh from Hollywood flops) as Raimunda, a glamorous Madrid cleaner, with Carmen Maura (the director’s muse in the 1980s) her estranged mother Irene, in a comic tale of family dysfunction, motherly love, old age and death.
    Whereas his previous film (Bad Education, 2004) detailed the tortuous effects on the lives of boyhood friends of the abuse and oppression perpetrated by the Catholic church, this time the ‘revenge’ against the dark days of fascist dictatorship continues more obliquely – showing cultural patterns from traditional peasant communities in La Mancha transformed into the contemporary urban lower class. In both settings the tasks of facilitating social reproduction and ameliorating the damage wrought by the patriarchs fall on women. The village folklore, which comfortingly rationalised suffering and hardship while sanctioning existing power, is now replaced by injunctions to hysterical narcissism on daytime and reality TV amid the inherently chaotic economics and social pathologies of the city – provoking a ‘return of the repressed’ where feminine frustration and lack of fulfilment feed generational tangles of trauma, resentment and reconciliation; and reaffirming and reinforcing the writer-director’s affectionate respect for women.
    However, Volver transcends the soapy limits of Hollywood melodrama and neo-realism’s tragic heroines and earth mothers, with its exaggerated sentimentality concealing deep ambivalence rippling throughout the social fabric. Overweening efforts to care for others shade into domination: producing smothering instead of nurturance; loneliness along with cohesion; loss overshadowing love; and, most tellingly, denial and duplicity reverberating among mothers, daughters, sisters, neighbours and friends. So, having disavowed her husband’s sexual abuse of Raimunda, Irene was promptly banished from her life. Now, Raimunda not only similarly fails to protect her own teenage daughter Paula – who kills stepfather Paco when he attempts rape – but monopolises the fallout, disempowering and infantilising her too. On cue, the ghost of Irene appears, and old wounds finally heal while new ones inevitably open. Far subtler than the critics credited, this poignant, occasionally hilarious, but troubled tribute to female solidarity thus also marks matriarchal omnipotence – like all wish-fulfilment fantasies – as coping mechanism rather than (re)solution.
    Sometimes sufficiently exasperated at machismo’s persistence to mercilessly deconstruct its baleful emotional frigidity, Almodóvar more typically dismisses ‘normal’ masculinity as obtrusive nuisance – privileging women as models for human strength and agency, however circumscribed by prevailing real-life or representational circumstances encouraging passive victimhood and objectification. The legendary alertness to nuances of feminine sociability – with an arguably gay sensitivity to dissimulation, display and masquerade – stems from an impoverished rural childhood in an extended female clan (men largely absent in the fields), followed by work as a Madrid telephonist surrounded by women colleagues. His labyrinthine narratives expertly undermine gendered cliches of voyeurism and identification ubiquitous in visual culture, intertwining diverse layers of twisted heightened intricacy from gossip, friendship, rivalry and Oedipal perversion. As boundaries blur between the painful intransigences of real life and the unconscious fantasy-worlds which mould libidinal excess into personality, monstrous, delirious farces ensue – which, nevertheless, consistently contrast malignant stifled conformity with more exploratory, mobile sensualities.
    Volver, though, displaces to backstory the circular cul-de-sacs of reciprocal obsession among neglectful mothers and envious daughters intimately dissected in earlier films, with their sexual transgressiveness appearing only indirectly – as in Raimunda paying the local prostitute ‘the going rate’ for helping dispose of Paco’s body. The cathartic humour equalises status in the messy facts of flesh, beautifully condensing class, gender and generational conflict (Raimunda explaining away blood from the corpse as ‘women’s troubles’; the telltale aroma of Irene’s farting suggesting that she is indeed no ghost). But the connective tissues of mutuality now sublimate in shared experience the raw intensity of fetishistic attachment – lifting burdens of unfinished business; redeeming past mistakes and misfortunes; creating chances for the characters to satisfy both their own and each other’s needs. Thus even their most urgent worldly activities (sequestering the café to service a visiting film crew; Solé’s illicit hairdressing salon) prioritise direct human relations over official economics and professional mediation, in this more balanced dialectic of desire and altruism. 
    Almodóvar’s aesthetic libertarianism evidences Spain’s uneven emergence from its feudal hangover – hippies, new romantics and rave culture cross-fertilising in a decadent carnival of pop-art punk indulgence. Refusing middle-class taste, intellectual pretension, cinematic propriety and corporate control, it exposes the fundamentally dominative corruption of hierarchical discourse – liberal capitalism and political correctness included – whereas the uncontrollable, unknowable contingencies of individuality constitute the collective richness of the social ensemble. Upsetting every po-faced certainty going (anticipating countless trends in fashionable academic gender theory, and travestying them too), his gradual thematic shift expanded the focus to the wider social ramifications of forging one’s own selfish course – reflecting the national political climate, as optimistic euphoria concerning consumerist democracy soured with the defeat of the widely-detested Socialists. The recent films signal how violent convulsions can rearticulate historical fragments into fresh configurations – the lawlessness of passion having its own self-determining dynamic, resisting repressive coding, suitable for mobilisation with vulgar intelligence and vigorous goodwill for the benefit of all. Luxuriating in popular pleasures, ridiculing pomposity and skewering superiority, Almodóvar is one of the few mainstream artists in any medium or genre whose work testifies so openly and resolutely to this potential.