Daily Archives: Friday, December 1, 2006

  • 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, Stic.man’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, Stic.man 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 Stic.man 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 www.guerillafunk.com). 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.