Tom Jennings

  • Gomorrah, dir. Matteo Garrone (2008)

    This Toxic Thing of Ours, by Tom Jennings

    Gomorrah, directed by Matteo Garrone
    Wrong-footing viewers with the surreal slaughter of sleazebags in a tanning parlour, Italian Mafia drama Gomorrah then immediately switches gear to quasi-documentary war-reportage from the mean streets of Naples satellite suburbs – more the tragic downbeat naturalism of The Wire’s forensic dissection of the drugs trade than middle- or high-ranking criminal (anti-)romances like The Godfather, The Sopranos, Scorcese or Scarface. That the latter inspires a couple of young sociopaths here to enact their gun-toting fantasies, with predictably suicidal results, reinforces the film’s ambition to reflect grass-roots reality while courting international acclaim (e.g. winning the Cannes Festival Grand Prix). Its five storylines intersect to depict the brutal grass-roots degradation and depradations caused by Camorrah clan control of daily life in the most deprived region of Western Europe – selected from a tapestry of thinly-fictionalised accounts in the best-selling novel by journalist Roberto Saviano, now under police guard for meticulously exposing what is known locally as ‘The System’.

    From panoramas of the Scampia public housing project in the Caserta wasteland, twitchy paranoid camerawork stalks their decaying decks following the aforementioned outlaw-wannabes, a youngster graduating from shopping-delivery to footsoldier by setting up a customer whose son turncoated to a rival ‘family’, the neighbourhood ‘accountant’ paying remittances to imprisoned members’ kinfolk (the only available ‘welfare’), a talented tailor in a fake high-fashion sweatshop, and a personal assistant to a waste-disposal manager paying landowners to flytip international chemical effluent on their estates. The palpable all-round hopelessness yields the pervasive ruination of moral, social, physical and environmental health, with few hints of agency (the clothes-designer escaping to become a trucker; the PA walking away from the patron his parents were so proud to have wangled him a career with) sugarcoating the rotten-borough desperation – the rot so comprehensively infecting the entire biosphere and lifeworld that the individual heroic villanies of Italian and Hollywood cinemas alike seem utterly irrelevant.

    This Toxic Thing of Ours

    Vividly conveying the poisonous totality of organised crime in Southern Italy, Gomorrah nevertheless risks resigned detachment (‘Isn’t it awful!?) and invites correspondingly external solutions, tackling neither the phenomenon’s historical development in defensive community cohesion nor its complex intrinsic entanglement with mainstream institutional structures. This is ironic given the recent refuse-collection strike in Naples and the Berlusconi government ordering military intervention in its ‘war on crime’ pretence – whereas the national political parties have intimately colluded with shady business, so that ‘respectable society’ is virtually indistinguishable from the Mafia’s parallel dual-power structures (especially in Sicily, where Christian Democrat communalism dovetailed seamlessly with Cosa Nostra patronage; or the notorious interpenetration of right-wing cabals and corrupt commercial and Vatican banking). As if in recognition of its partiality, the film ends with statistics of the Camorrah’s financial scale (including massive investment in New York’s rebuilding at Ground Zero) – leaving audiences to infer the universal toxicity of government-by-capitalism and the futility of expecting its guardians to act against it.

    www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

    for further essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see also www.variant.org.uk and http://libcom.org

  • Jar City, dir. Baltasar Kormakur (2008)

    Hardboiled and Hardwired, by Tom Jennings

    Mobilising the distinctive features of Iceland’s insular history and comparatively recent breakneck modernisation, Baltasar Kormákur’s 101 Reykjavik (2000) cleverly spun indie cinema’s staple of aimless slackers from dysfunctional families adrift in trendy youth culture. Heavily indebted to Pedro Almodóvar’s subversions of social and sexual conformism in contemporary Spain, he has continued to mine the tragic farces of kinship in sundry genres – from The Sea’s (2002) sins-of-the-patriarch saga to stock white-trash grifters in the over-Hollywoodised A Little Trip to Heaven (2005). Now, the debut’s counterpointing of harsh Icelandic geography and the long-suffering travails of its inhabitants returns with a vengeance – both literally and metaphorically – in another crime thriller scenario in Jar City, based on a novel by Arnaldur Indridasun. Here, however, while still brim-full of manipulative melodrama and mordant humour, there is also a recurring poignancy which transcends the director’s earlier comic misanthropy – evoking empathy for otherwise thoroughly unlikeable characters whose misery seems both self-inflicted and pre-ordained.

    The film’s sense of stifling structural determination is enhanced by Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson’s alternately majestic aerial pans across the Arctic landscape (with dramatic choral score) and claustrophobic interior cinematography. We descend into this forbidding environment via a grotty urban basement with dour world-weary detective Erlendur (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson) expressing disgust at a “typical Icelandic murder – messy and pointless”. Lonely lowlife lorry-driver Holberg’s skull was caved in with his own ashtray, but the sole crime-scene clues are a penchant for porn and a decades-old photo of the grave of a child – whose later exhumation shows her brain removed before burial. Meanwhile genetic database administrator Orn (Atli Rafn Sigurdarson) obsessively mourns his young daughter succumbing to the same rare brain condition. These threads dovetail as the investigation implicates Holberg’s old criminal muckers – but one (the country’s “most notorious maniac”) is now in prison and the other found hidden under Holberg’s floor having been killed years earlier. Suspicions of their past sexual violence then also evaporate once a search for rape victims yields only Orn’s mother disclosing hitherto concealed youthful indiscretions. Realising Orn has independently pieced together his real parentage and killed Holberg (as we see in flashback), Erlendur is too late to prevent his suicide which extinguishes the catastrophic bloodline.

    Hardboiled and Hardwired

    The domestic box-office success of this entertaining and accomplished movie testifies to the strong resonance of thematic concerns which have wider, even universal, relevance. The obvious hook is the Icelandic DNA mapping project run by private company deCODE Genetics Inc, with the usual hype promising medical revelation via Big Pharma’s monopoly over life’s biological substrates – despite its empirical basis being as dangerously shaky as the governmental thirst for scientific population management supposedly necessitating exhaustive identity intrusion. But the title namechecks Reykjavik’s repository of the treasure troves of previous generations of pathologists – endless samples of pickled organs, etc – whose fleshy monstrosity now upgrades to sanitised digital simulacra. As Erlendur has it: “Tragedies, sorrows, and death, all carefully classified in computers. Family stories and stories of individuals. Stories about me and you. You keep the whole secret and can call it up whenever you want. A Jar City for the whole nation”. Whereas the novel was originally called Myrin (‘the marshes’ of Iceland’s lowland) – more sharply capturing the complacent edifices of our time built upon far murkier, unstable foundations; with the brave new hi-tech rhetoric merely a clinical corporate veneer on persistent older fictions which regiment racial purity, moral health and social conduct to suit the reproduction of hierarchy.
    The point, of course, is that whatever significance is ascribed to the role of genetics, it’s what people do with such ideas that really matters. And the attitudes of those involved in the plodding investigation here revolve around a comparable jarring of inward- and backward-looking fatalistic conservatism against the demands of an uncomfortable present and uncertain future. So prevailing homespun wisdom about dark deeds misguidedly blames the dire products of ‘tainted blood’ on “incest, rape, or foreigners” – thus attributing to biological imperative various skeletons actually closeted by purely cultural prejudice. Meanwhile dialogue is peppered with the detectives’ banter concerning their own and the suspects’ personalities and tastes, with his assistants’ contrasting narcissisic yuppie pretensions and sympathetic no-nonsense womanly intelligence offsetting Erlendur’s authoritative macho. Yet his response to the wreckage of his private life transcends blind obedience to warrior stereotype – tending an injured thug he’s chucked down the stairs, and caring for the pregnant daughter he’d previously abandoned to promiscuous junkiehood. Ingrained laws – whether of the State or jungle – make humanitarian sense neither of the case at hand nor the routine redemptions of altruism, conviviality and love.

    For that purpose, more open minds and hearts are required – precisely the potentials, as it happens, that decisive mutations in hominid evolution unleashed with the retention of infantile simian features. Neoteny – especially in brain morphology, and hence language and learning – relaxed fixed instinctual control allowing greater individual and collective adaptability and creativity. The rest is (human) history, with no programmed, predictable outcome – to the eternal dismay of control-freaks of all stripes. Ironic, then, to witness current regressions to the comforting delusions of innate determinism, as sociobiology – neoliberalism’s ideological handmaiden – fashions just-so fantasies of perfectly calculating psychopaths maximising profitable ‘fitness’. But not as organisms, peskily stubborn as we have proved in insisting that a better world is possible. No, instead we’re animated by swarms of sinister ‘selfish genes’, somehow orchestrating unbelievably intricate biochemical, behavioural, even conceptual patterns sidestepping social, cultural and political agency. And with this wholesale philosophical disavowal to be biotechnologically operationalised in the dissection and correction of chromosomes, you have to ask: Is this the apex of advanced civilised rationality, or proof positivist of the criminal insanity of capitalism?

    www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

    for further essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see also www.variant.org.uk and http://libcom.org

  • Somers Town, dir. Shane Meadows (2008)

    New Wave Goodbye, by Tom Jennings

    East Midlands film-maker Shane Meadows has consistently crafted acutely-observed studies of the effects of capitalism’s structural adjustment in contemporary Britain where it has hit hardest in post-industrial working-class communities – his distinctive theme being male efforts at forging functional social networks to survive drudgery and despair under pressure from both material and psychic infrastructures decaying beyond repair. In scripts co-written with Paul Fraser, sharp wit and spot-on dialogue retain affection for and empathy with realistically conflicted characters while developing an understated but sophisticated understanding of personal pain – contriving hope without either pretension or patronisation. After the micro-financed Small Time (1996) captured aimless slacking and scamming on a Notts sink estate, Twenty Four Seven (1997) focussed on Bob Hoskins’ boxing club keeping kids (and himself) out of trouble, before A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) delved deeper into absent/bad father dialectics spinning teenage friendship and family breakdown. Then the bigger-budget Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002) wove ersatz Western heroics into humble romantic comedy – falling rather naffly flat in the process – before the darker Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) convincingly twisted generic macho conventions with Paddy Considine’s Falklands vet relentlessly avenging his intellectually-challenged kid brother’s victimisation.

    Returning to intimate resonance, the partly-autobiographical skinhead story This Is England (2006; discussed in Freedom, 30th June and 14th July 2007) more successfully conveyed modern social and political interconnectivity. Now, before the long-planned King of the Gypsies (about a bare-knuckle prize-fighter from Meadows’ hometown of Uttoxeter), Somers Town visits pastures new – geographically, anyway – exploiting cinema history with renewed confidence to widen the narrative remit. Here, sixteen year-old Tommo (Thomas Turgoose) abandons Nottingham after a miserable childhood. Cheeky likeability doesn’t prevent him from succumbing to the mean streets of London, however, and on his first night after arriving at Kings Cross station he’s beaten-up by local thugs who steal his belongings. Meanwhile introverted Polish adolescent Marek (Piotr Jagiello) spends lonely days photographing the titular square-mile between Euston and St Pancras his brickie dad Marius (Ireneusz Czop) is working overtime to help gentrify – in particular taking countless snaps of Maria (Elisa Lasowski), a French greasy-spoon waitress he has a crush on. The unlikely lads hook up and vie for her attentions in between skivvying for low-rent spiv Graham (Perry Benson), and Marek smuggles Tommo into his room unbeknownst to Marius. The arrangement goes pear-shaped when they drunkenly wreck the flat after Maria suddenly disappears back to Paris, whereupon Graham puts Tommo up and he and Marek fantasise reunion with her courtesy of Eurostar.

    New Wave Goodbye

    Despite its deceptively light touch, slender running time (71 minutes) and generally life-affirming tone, Somers Town harbours more interesting undercurrents than may be initially apparent. As usual the comic accuracy of the banter is enhanced by improvisation, so that the subtle, engaging performances render somewhat unbelievable relationships satisfying and highlight the many set-piece gags and pratfalls. Moreover, Meadows’ trademark attention to details of place and movement within neglected and transitional spaces offers crucial small measures of freedom otherwise belied by heavy constraints on possible action. But the film transcends even these worthy (if parochial) achievements by deftly incorporating moods, scenarios and developments originally deployed in a whole swathe of distinctive European social-realist codes – the viewer’s long experience of which (irrespective of awareness) prompting specific expectations that can then be played with. Yet such elements are not flaunted with knowing postmodern flash and artifice. Instead they emerge unobtrusively and organically in the characters’ trajectories through happenstance, idle choice or practical necessity – and never distort or mystify a story more salient to the world-weary disoriented DIY cynicism of this rotten new millennium than the over-simplistic clean-cut idealism of the last century’s angry young grammar-school graduates marching into the media.

    So, minimal co-ordinates would include postwar Italian neo-realism’s naturalistic portraits of hard labour and even grimmer class and gender norms yielding stoic tragedies of wasted life, shading into 1950s Northern UK kitchen-sink protagonists impotently banging heads against the brick walls of an unjust status quo. And whereas the French New Wave’s iconic Jules et Jim et al shocked elders and betters with rebellious lifestyles, London’s Swinging Sixties dreamt of dissolving all tradition in consumer ecstasy while Polish and Czech experiments with black-and-white expressionism and surrealism were soon crushed by Stalinism. Traces of all these dimensions and levels of cultural rites of passage converge and collide here – referencing universal youthful naïvete morphing into adult disillusionment as well as the hopes and fears of 20th century social democracy’s disappointed children, and perhaps also Shane Meadows’ own directorial maturity in wielding such weighty themes in a whimsically subversive response to Eurostar’s tainted shilling commissioning a cool art-film to feed corporate vanity. As for the prognosis – for the likes of Tommo and Marek, and the rest of us – it may be naïve to predict we won’t get fooled again. But if false promises of consumerism are capitalism’s carrot, its stick is the engineered destruction of lifeworlds – and Somers Town sensibly suspends any resolution even when the die is decisively cast in the real location. Nevertheless the film clearly proffers horizontal rather than upward mobility, and collective as opposed to individual engagement, as the only realistically productive options.

    www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

    for further essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see also www.variant.org.uk and http://libcom.org

  • Linha De Passe, directed by Walter Salles & Daniela Thomas (Brazil, 2008)

    Nils All, by Tom Jennings

    Salles reunites with long-term collaborator Thomas in the low-key social realism of early successes Foreign Land (1996) and Central Station (1999), which skilfully knit together narratives of everyday life in portraying the contemporary history of Brazil from the bottom-up. Linha De Passe is therefore an interesting contrast to both the director’s recent films – Behind The Sun’s (2001) intense magical-realist village vendetta, the fluffy tourist portrayal of young Che in Motorcycle Diaries (2004), and the naff Japanese ghost-story remake Dark Water (2005) – as well as lurid contemporary stylisations of ‘favela chic’ in City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2002), City of Men (Paolo Morelli, 2007), and Elite Squad (Jose Padilha, 2008). The new release combines true-life scenarios, sophisticated construction, inspired cinematography and editing, and sympathetic casting and direction to avoid the overblown grandiosity and simplistic social stasis of these other films, while exploring individuality and collectivity via twin metaphors of family and football to illuminate with great humility social complexity and potential. Moreover the title has several ‘beautiful game’ connotations – from ‘keepy-uppy’ and developing teamwork to a wider philosophy of transcendence – but a resolute refusal of ‘Roy of the Rovers’ cliches make this, to my mind, the best football film ever.

    Nils All

    Single-matriarch cleaner Cleuza (a majestic Sandra Corveloni, best actress winner at Cannes) is pregnant by a fifth different absent father after another escape into drunken delirious fandom. She struggles to hold together four sons in a decrepit concrete shanty in Sao Paolo: Dario’s neighbourhood ball-playing genius, at eighteen too old to break into the minor leagues; Dinis’ womanising motorcycle courier, already with a child he can’t support, turns to violent car-crime; Dinho’s petrol-pump jockey looks to evangelical religion; and Reginaldo, the youngest, truants on local buses searching for his Black father. The petty filial conflicts and fierce loyalty, oscillating between selfishness, spite and big-heartedness, of these young working-class men with few prospects beyond endless drudgery – but still varying measures of agency – are seamlessly interwoven so as to deny neither crushing frustration nor the stubborn intelligence, resourcefulness and determination of lower-class life. A homage to the Italian neorealist classic Rocco and His Brothers (Luchino Visconti, 1960), Linha De Passe thus trumps its negativity – though the fairytale denouement of Dario getting a break and scoring the winning goal is hedged with cautionary suspicion that the pervasive corruption of the sport’s institutions will smother him. Meanwhile Cleuza gives birth screaming, Dinis decides he can’t hack wrecking people’s lives, Dinho assaults his boss, and diminutive Reginaldo drives away a bus in search of past, present and future …

    www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

    for further essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see also www.variant.org.uk and http://libcom.org

  • The 3rd World, by Immortal Technique

    Globalising Ghettocentricity by Tom Jennings

    Harlem-raised after his family fled Peruvian civil war, Immortal Technique’s misspent youth included incarceration for violent offences, wherein he honed his hip-hop flow before redirecting rage onto rivals, winning open-mic contests across New York and further afield. So far, so classic ‘boy from the ’hood done good’ – except for the parallel awakening of revolutionary class-consciousness translated into the most explicitly political rap recordings yet. From the get-go favouring precarious autonomy over commercial straitjackets – McJobs paying for studio time, handling distribution personally – Revolutionary, Vol. 1 (2001) heralded his agenda in the ‘Poverty of Philosophy’:
    “My revolution is born out of love for my people, not hatred for others … As different as we have been taught to look at each other by colonial society, we are in the same struggle and until we realize that, we’ll be fighting for scraps from the table of a system that has kept us subservient … I have more in common with most working and middle-class white people than I do with most rich black and Latino people. As much as racism bleeds America, we need to understand that classism is the real issue. Many of us are in the same boat and it’s sinking, while these bougie motherfuckers ride on a luxury liner, and as long as we keep fighting over kicking people out of the little boat we’re all in, we’re gonna miss an opportunity to gain a better standard of living as a whole … You cannot change the past but you can make the future …”
    The debut’s burgeoning buzz prompted distro collaboration with independent labels for 2003’s Revolutionary, Vol. 2. Also far exceeding sales expectations, this was swiftly followed by Viper Records’ establishment to regain self-control. Apart from legendary single ‘Bin Laden’ (with refrain: “Bush knocked down the towers …”), Immortal Technique concentrated on consolidating talent like producer Southpaw and MC Akir, whose Legacy is the best hip-hop album in years.* At long last, then, a new album – The 3rd World, produced in mixtape fashion by Green Lantern (formerly house DJ for Eminem’s Shady Records) – continues Tech’s maturation, adding contemporary hip-hop styles to raucous minimalism. His vocals too have greater texture and engaging thoughtfulness than prior default tenors juggling psychotically omnipotent bragging and sneering hectoring when dropping political science. Both doubtless suit MC-battling but can become soporifically monotonous – militating against appreciating his prodigious lyrical dexterity astutely condensing contrasting levels of analysis into each theme with ferocious wit and insurrectionary wisdom.

    The 3rd World’s concept relates “the streets here in the US to those around the world”. Moreover, in terms of cultural production, “the struggles of developing countries … are mirrored within the rap industry. In the same way that First World superpowers have continuously exploited the Third World for its natural resources, land, labor and industry, the major label superpowers have done the same” (Immortal Technique, www.viperrecords.com). So the into, ‘Death March’, emphasises that “We are now in a state of guerrilla warfare … through the streets of your psychology”. And if the equation of commercial rap to chattel slavery stretches credulity, the multiple analogy in ‘Harlem Renaissance’ powerfully links US urban political-economics to world-system wars and cultural recuperations past and present:
    “Harlem was once was red-light district-rated / Designated ghetto like the yellow star of David … / Until after the invasion of gentrification / Eminent domain, intimidation – that’s not negotiation … / Ivy league real estate firms are corrupt / They lay siege to your castle like the wars in Europe / They treat street vendors like criminal riff-raff / while politicians get the corporate kickback …
    When I speak about Harlem I speak to the world / The little Afghan boy and the Bosnian girl / The African in Sudan, the people of Kurdistan / The third world American, indigenous man / Palestinians, Washington Heights Dominicans / Displaced New Orleans citizens / Beach-front Brazilians, favelas that you living in / The ’hood is prime real estate, they want back in again …
    I didn’t write this to talk shit, I say it because / Some of ya’ll forgot what the Harlem Renaissance was / We had revolution, music, and artisans / But the movement was still fucked up like Parkinson’s / ’Cause while we were giving birth to the culture we love / Prejudice kept our own people out of the club / Only coloured celebrities in the party / And left us a legacy of false superiority / W.E.B. DuBois versus Marcus Garvey / And we ended up selling out to everybody / The Dutch Schultzes and the John Gottis / Banksters, modern day gangsters, immobilari … / Harlem Renaissance, a revolution betrayed / Modern day slaves thinking that the ghetto is saved / So they start deporting people off the property / Ethnically cleansing the ’hood economically / They want to kill the real Harlem Renaissance / Trying to put the virgin Mary through an early menopause / The saviour is a metaphor for how we set it off / Guerrilla war against the lease-owning predators”.
    Other tracks and guest appearances flesh out the grass-roots revolutionary stance with more depth than even Paris, The Coup and Dead Prez can manage – from the Spanish-language ‘Golpe De Estado’ (=Smash the State) through rabble-rousing anthems full of insight and intelligence. Meanwhile, several reflective cuts leave self-righteous preachiness decisively behind, including ‘Mistakes’ pondering wrong turns taken: “Some people learn from mistakes and don’t repeat them / Others try to block the memories and just delete them / But I keep them as a reminder they not killing me / And I thank God for teaching me humility / Son, remember when you fight to be free / To see things how they are, and not how you’d like ’em to be / ’Cause even when the world is falling on top of me / Pessimism is an emotion, not a philosophy / Knowing what’s wrong, doesn’t imply that you right / And it’s another when you suffer, to apply it in life”. So, even as a stopgap while The Middle Passage and Revolutionary, Vol. 3 incubate, this superb album has a compelling sound and vision all its own.

    * see my review of recent radical rap in ‘Rebel Poets Reloaded’, Variant 30, 2007 (www.variant.org.uk).

    www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

    The 3rd World is available on import, from Amazon or, preferably, direct from Viper.

    for further reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see also www.variant.org.uk and http://libcom.org

  • Gone, Baby, Gone, by Dennis Lehane (1998); dir. Ben Affleck (2007)

    Public Service Denouncement, by Tom Jennings

    edited version published in Variant, No. 33, October 2008

    In ‘CSI: The Big Sleazy’ (Variant, No. 31), I discussed The Tin Roof Blowdown, James Lee Burke’s 2007 crime novel set in New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina, in terms of the anger and sadness of the author at the abject failure of government institutions to respond adequately to the scale of that disaster. In the narrative, Burke’s surrogate is Dave Robicheaux – an ageing Louisiana police detective, Vietnam veteran and recovering alcoholic drafted in to bolster the restoration of law and order in the flooded city – whose progressive social conscience and keen class- and race-consciousness contrast with his proclivity towards the violent resolution of conflict and frustration. In effect, this character’s obsession with his individual weaknesses – expressed, for example, in nostalgia for a mythic past and a chivalric ideal of personal integrity that cannot tolerate or withstand the complexities of contemporary society – leads him to continually recreate the circumstances which cause him such pain in his life. Furthermore he projects these same dynamics onto his perceptions of the world around him, which are thus reflected in his professional conduct, personal relationships and impact on the lives of others. I concluded that analogous patterns of self-defeating, cyclical fantasies circulate culturally and politically too; an angle which helps to illuminate the ways Burke tries to weave larger phenomena into the unfolding of his scenarios. Operating within the detective mystery genre then allows the writer to dramatise these sorts of contradictions, linking macro- and micro-levels in a particularly powerful and compelling way.

    Meanwhile crime fiction has enjoyed something of a renaissance since the 1980s – aspiring to the status of serious literature as well as pulp populism, and embracing ambitions to critical social commentary from pungent perspectives outside of and in opposition to mainstream complacency. Many younger writers were inspired by neo-noir pioneers like Burke, Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy, who built on the genre’s founding characteristics pitting independent ‘working stiffs’ and ‘little guys’ against the corporate corruption of the monstrous modern urban machine. However, these authors’ somewhat old-fashioned, backward-looking sensibilities – partly, no doubt, due to their generational positioning – result in a pessimistic, ultimately even conservative, outlook concerning prospects for change. Beyond, that is, the temporary victories of cynically lovable rogues unmasking the amoral excesses of the rich and powerful – but which promise no enduring impact, either on the overarching societal structures and conditions which foster and shelter large-scale wrongdoing, or on the range of strategies employing variations of brutal and cunning self-seeking machismo shared by heroes and villains alike. These dispiriting trends are reinforced in the most popular latter-day descendants of private eyes in visualisations of urban chaos and crime at the cinema, where earlier shades of grey in classic film noir had mutated by the 1990s into lurid stylisation and the glamourisation of cartoonish violence – such as in films by John Dahl and Quentin Tarantino – with social and political context or nuance obliterated by technicolour nihilism and comic-book characterisation.

    But there is another trajectory in recent noir fiction which starts from the empirically obvious proposition that the suffering associated with criminal violence falls disproportionately and routinely on the poor. Lower-class strata may be stigmatised and marginalised in terms of media portrayal as well as in achieving American dreams, yet constitute the bulk of the population – so that a point of view properly rooted within their milieux and lifeworlds may more accurately encapsulate the contours of present social ills. Alongside authors such as Walter Mosley and Michael Connelly (Los Angeles), Andrew Vachss and Richard Price (New York), and George Pelecanos (Washington DC), a prime exponent of this new wave is Dennis Lehane, whose Boston-based stories deal with urban impoverishment, gentrification, racism, organised crime and political and institutional corruption in such a way as to meditate on how ordinary people collectively understand and negotiate extremes of adversity – preferring vernacular verisimilitude in geographical and temporal specificity to the quirkily baroque, drifting grifting misfits elsewhere. Since this writer attracted widespread attention with Clint Eastwood’s multiple Oscar-winning 2003 version of Mystic River (first published in 2001), several more of his books are now the source material for big-budget films whose producers expect equally impressive worldwide audiences. The next adaptation to reach the screen and fulfil the projection was Gone, Baby, Gone (directed by Ben Affleck, 2007; originally published in 1998), providing a convenient opportunity to evaluate any advances made by this revisionist hardboiled realism.

    In Loco Parentis

    Based on the fourth book in Lehane’s acclaimed Kenzie & Gennaro series, Gone, Baby, Gone’s UK theatrical release was delayed in sensitivity to the Madeleine McCann case – an association no doubt boosting box-office despite the two child abduction scenarios bearing scant resemblance. The salacious jostling of news-team vultures would be one common denominator – here descending on the depressed environs of Dorchester, South Boston, Massachussetts. Their typically hysterical saturation coverage highlights single-mother Helene McCready (a magnificent Amy Ryan) lamenting her disappeared four-year-old Amanda, shepherded by steely-eyed police with neighbours and family rallying supportively even in a prevailing mood of ominous pessimism. First-time director Ben Affleck (co-scriptwriter with Aaron Stockard) as well as the story’s creator also hail from these mean streets, while thirty-something protagonist PIs Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) have lived there all their lives. Passionate attachment to the blue-collar ’hood is reflected in the latters’ preoccupations (e.g. Kenzie: “Things you can’t choose … make you who you are”), and in the camera’s regular carefully naturalistic pans around inner-city blight, alighting on variously battered and beleaguered, resigned and/or residually energetic real residents – many of whom are also cast in supporting roles and minor caricatures complementing consistently fine acting by star-turns.

    Despite high-minded pronouncements by Crimes Against Children Unit cop supremo Captain Jack Doyle – who years ago lost his own child to kidnappers – and ace detectives Remy Bressant and Nick Poole being assigned to the case (Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris and John Ashton respectively lending grizzled gravitas to proceedings), official inquiries quickly falter. Specialist skip-tracers hunting down debtors and errant spouses, the initially reluctant Kenzie and Gennaro are beseeched by Amanda’s aunt Bea (Amy Madigan) and uncle Lionel (Titus Welliver) to join the investigation. After putting the word out on the street, local confidence in their discretion immediately yields leads – first, a recently-paroled child-molester may be in the area; then, the potential involvement of notorious gangster kingpin Cheese Olamon (Edi Gathegi) and missing drugs-money. Helene’s own substance-abuse, chaotic self-centred behaviour and neglectful parenting compound suspicious unreliability, and her elusive boyfriend Skinny-Ray Likanski’s (Sean Malone) sudden violent execution clinches the link. No longer patronised by the police for naïve amateurism, the investigators uncover the cash and Doyle brokers a highly unorthodox exchange for Amanda at a remote flooded quarry. Unfortunately the botched switch leaves Cheese shot dead, and she’s believed drowned when a favourite doll is found floating in the treacherous waters. Doyle is sacked for culpable incompetence and retires in disgrace to the sticks; the little girl’s funeral is held; crime-and-punishment pundits seek new shock-horrors; and everyone sees tragic closure achieved.

    Except for Kenzie, who still smells a rat – but a subsequent spiralling descent into the violent degradations of child abuse and addiction eventually reveals depths of duplicity at all levels even he’d never dreamed (surely also wrongfooting most viewers – so anyone not wanting the suspense ruined should not read on). When another local child disappears, Kenzie’s old schoolfriend, now drug dealer, Bubba Rogowski (Boston rapper Slaine) confirms that cocaine addicts Leon and Roberta Trett (Mark Margolis and Trudi Goodman) are sheltering paedophile Corwin Earle (Matthew Maher). Not waiting for backup, Kenzie, Bressant and Poole’s shootout with the Tretts leaves the latter three dead, whereupon Kenzie finds the missing boy already murdered and kills Earle in cold blood. Soon afterwards, uniformed cop Devin (Michael Kenneth Williams) – another mate from back in the day – provides vital corroboration of the suspicions Kenzie has developed about Bressant who, disguised as a stick-up artist, desperately threatens to assassinate Kenzie and Titus to seal their silence. But a trigger-happy bartender gets him first and Titus confesses their collaboration in Amanda’s disappearance. Putting it all together, Kenzie and Gennaro travel upstate and discover Amanda playing happily with Doyle’s wife. However, refusing Gennaro’s ultimatum to leave the child where she’ll have a chance of a decent life, Kenzie reports the crime and Doyle is arrested. When the dust has settled, Kenzie visits the reunited mother and daughter. He finds Helene apparently cleaned-up, but preparing for a new date (courtesy of the local celebrity status afforded her by the media) and obligingly babysits, considering the situation thoughtfully as Amanda gazes mutely at the television …

    Rule of Law

    These plot twists in the last part of the film certainly serve to undermine our assumptions as cultivated so far – and Kenzie and Gennaro’s too, leaving them disagreeing over a final dilemma so fundamental as to terminate their professional and romantic relationship. Nevertheless, ultimate judgements and justifications concerning rights, wrongs and likely consequences remain suspended. Not only are heroic rescue, reassuring redemption, and cautionary tragedy refused, but the conservative grounds upon which viewers might expect such outcomes – from banal Hollywood crime-action pulp to the parallel (but no less fantasy-ridden) morbid tabloid shock-horror over current affairs – are comprehensively undercut. Such disquieting limbo was obviously deliberate, and scriptwriting decisions altering and cutting the source novel wholesale pass the buck to us even more starkly. But, when the crunch comes, the alternative courses of action are already so thoroughly tainted by association with webs of corruption, collusion, dishonesty and degeneracy that imagining integrity in any pat answer is out of the question. The story’s unusual strength, then, is to insist that apparently straightforward moral choices, posing isolated individual instances in simplistic good-versus-evil binaries, don’t stand scrutiny once their complex, ambivalent contexts and histories are laid bare – ‘doing the right’ thing thus depending on what inevitably has to be ignored, assimilated, or denied.

    The critical consensus concerning Gone, Baby, Gone, however, has been that the potential force of any such sophisticated philosophy is scuppered by the denouement’s implausibility – deeming it unbelievable that the entire saga should constitute a conspiracy choreographed by Doyle in connivance with his lieutenants all the way down to Helene’s disapproving relatives; with varying material, malicious and purportedly altruistic interests and self-righteousnesses interweaving in spiriting the lass to ‘safety’ while her mam drank in the bar. The ensuing host of casualties, whether dead or bereft – unmourned criminals, Bressant and Poole, sundry written-off lower-class dupes – are then blithely sacrificed, pawns for the patriarch’s peace of mind on relinquishing burdensome responsibility. But what really galls, one suspects – for those of conventional bent – is that out the window also go all pretensions of institutional credibility. Crucially, the scheme’s success hinged on acceptance at face value of the normal scripts, cliches and homilies of governance, public service and basic decency among higher- and lower-order model citizens obeying the law along with those charged with upholding it. Whereas not only does the arrogance of power lead the rogue detectives to assume they can get away with their scam, but we are invited to tacitly underwrite their belief that their actions are in the best interests of the child – which was supposed to be the official remit all along.

    Criminal Justice System

    Now, this narrative device – of illegal activity by law-enforcement personnel seeing no other way to fulfil their sworn duty – can be interpreted not as a rare unfortunate exception, but rather a particularly vicious and vivid expression of business as usual. Such might be the response, for example, of those on the habitual sharp end of prejudicial insult, harassment and stitch-up from police officers and, for that matter, officialdom in general. In which case an overarching metaphor comes into focus – the police force standing for the entire institutional paraphernalia of government, including its purportedly benevolent arms – whose main function is to keep the lid on all the cans of worms threatening polite society. From this jaundiced perspective, at least, Gone, Baby, Gone’s plot may not seem outrageous at all, resonating far beyond its particular setting to the War on Welfare everywhere. But in a South Boston rapidly decaying beyond reasonable hopes of salvation, Kenzie and Gennaro are cast as representative of a grass-roots, working-class sensibility, yet without the luxury of cynical fatalism if they are to nail the truth and do their job. And although the film loses the bulk of Lehane’s meticulous dialogue conveying the full convincing texture of conflicting attitudes in action, viewers are given several hints among the blood-red herrings that the protection of childhood innocence is a (perhaps the) primal pretext for other, guiltier, agendas.

    So, encouraged to perceive Helene harshly through circumstantial implication, explicit condemnation, and the harsh glare of unforgiving attention, we never glimpse direct evidence of her actual everyday relationship with her daughter. We are expected to assume the worst. Kenzie, though, sees genuine grief (as opposed to self-pity) beneath her white-trash bravado – which inclines him to accept the mission – while Gennaro embraces advocacy for Amanda herself, regardless of the concerns of the adults. These combined criteria, without which the case would have gone decisively cold, specifically rebut any stereotypical dismissal of Helene. Contrariwise, Doyle’s parental fitness is unchallenged, despite his known trauma and willingness to wreck lives to heal it. Who is the child, to him, beyond a substitute salving private pain? Do his influence and affluence – displaced from urban hell to rustic idyll – guarantee saintly credentials in arrogating to himself godlike choice? Then shouldn’t all the suffering children be saved from the agony of the ghetto and the evils impoverishment produces? Even if the manner of its accomplishment adds to the oppression and injustice nourishing desperation in the first place, simultaneously precluding youthful renewal? While, irrespective of increments of positivity which might (arguably) transpire, serving the selfish desires and fantasies of those in positions to exploit the system to advantage? … Anything for a happy ending?

    No. The relentless message from media and politicians is to abandon the irredeemable poor, demonising any deviation from passively respectable defeatism. The innocent purity to be protected here, then, is the lingering quasi-religious illusion that things might turn out right by trusting the benevolence of those in charge and believing their rationalisations. Whereas, surely, if a single soul spared is the best to hope for, this betrays an utmost cynicism – the complete collapse of legitimacy of the status quo to match its guardians’ insincerity. But Kenzie won’t give up on his people (or himself), following simple ethics, fulfilling his promise – returning Amanda to her mother – when others see Greater Good accepting thoroughgoing corruption in a broken society. Even he suspects he chose wrong, in the final scene mournfully contemplating prospects, Helene again out on the razzle. Yet with no individual correct solution to a collective quandary, maintaining honesty, integrity and compassion and nourishing them around you may represent a pragmatic faith preferable to fairytale wish-fulfilment making token exceptions to busted-flush rules. Credit is due to Gone, Baby, Gone’s makers for going against the grain to render such thorny issues even conceivable on mainstream screens.

    To Protect and Serve

    While acknowledging that it was no mean feat to adapt over five-hundred pages of original novel down to a script five-times shorter – yet still managing to effectively convey the spirit and overall ambivalence that the author intended – it is worth looking more closely at the heavy culling involved in the process of visualising Dennis Lehane’s scrupulously character- and dialogue-driven prose. In his writing, responses to, evaluations of, and wider ramifications pertaining to even the most harrowing experiences are contrived to flow naturally from the culturally and emotionally realistic perspectives of his protagonists and their idiosyncrasies – rather than the arbitrary manipulation to serve externally-imposed stock motivations that Hollywood is notorious for. Most obviously in this respect, the blockbusting set-piece action scenes and the extremes of violence portrayed sit awkwardly with the unsentimentally direct depictions elsewhere of mundane everyday poverty and its smaller-scale, if no less corrosive, aggressions and menaces. In fact Lehane admits to imagining the kinetic, balletic characteristics of such sequences according to cinematic iconography, and the film treatment certainly obliges – although with a consistent concentration on the visceral and psychological suffering incurred, evoking horror rather than cartoon titillation. Nonetheless the slick revelation and negotiation of their ugly depths cannot conceal the fact that the pivotal confrontation at the quarry and storming of the paedophile’s den, for example, are side issues both in terms of the specific narrative logic as well as the more abstract themes being developed.

    True, there is a balanced, gradual progression of heightening danger, more immediate physical threat and raised stakes the further and deeper into the mire Kenzie and Gennaro stumble. But in the book’s trajectory, although each blow dealt, injury sustained, and narrow escape accomplished wreaks indelible damage on bodies and psyches that is never trivialised, the objective qualities of these deadly situations are overshadowed by the shared struggle to interpret their significance in the light of limited, provisional understanding. So, not surprisingly, the very real evils of organised crime and the undoubted prevalence of child sexual abuse were considered prime candidates to account for Amanda’s abduction. As favoured moral panics they also feature centrally in prevailing discourses justifying the whole panoply of legal powers whereby the state protects society via monitoring and intrusion. Whereas here these are manifestly unfit for purpose, dysfunctioning only as pretext and smokescreen, so that any regressive catharctic release after the usual suspects are disposed of dissipates rapidly as no payoff accrues. With the child still missing, only obstinate dissatisfaction with received wisdom, relentlessly seeking sense, eventually makes the difference. And this perverse persistence feeds on a constant interplay of repartee, interplay and synergy between Kenzie and Gennaro mulling over matters arising within their network of close friends, colleagues and acquaintances among criminals, cops and ordinary folk – an immersion which is precisely what the film’s condensation abandons.

    A world in flux to be deciphered by the hard graft of socially-situated knowledge instead hard-boils down to showcase showdowns in a static fantasy universe of heroic fallen angels and archetypal demons puppet-mastered by unseen fiendish hands – resembling all those tiresomely mechanical detective thriller formats onscreen and in the genre literature, which pander to disgusted fascination at the depths of human depravity while working overdrive to reassure us of our distance from it. But Lehane’s version flirts with these conventions only to flout and transcend them, and Kenzie is no lone crusader for justice – despite the screenplay’s best efforts. Most importantly, Gennaro’s role is attenuated to the extent that she appears no more than a feminine accessory representing empathy, concern and support counterpointing Kenzie’s masculine detachment and objectivity – whereas practically the opposite is the case in the book, where he is intuitive and she more practical and organised, a better planner and indeed a better shot (she actually shoots Bressant, and saves Kenzie’s bacon much more often than vice versa throughout the series). As a partnership of rough equals, their conflictual relationship is central to the investigation’s progress, and their contrasting perspectives on relationships and family arising from their own wretched childhoods have left them both deeply flawed and of questionable moral stature in various different respects. Their estrangement at the end then reflects the deeply personal resonances of the situation rather than dogma – and even this is accommodated in the subsequent instalment, Prayers For Rain (1999), by which time each sees the merits of the other’s position.

    Moreover Kenzie, Gennaro, Rogowski, and Cheese, along with other excised characters, were all childhood friends, schoolmates or neighbours with shared histories straddling all sides of the law. Bubba Rogowski is the couple’s most steadfast friend and protector, not just an old acquaintance – a borderline-psychotic weapons-dealer and feared enforcer with extensive Mob connections rather than a local pusher. Devin (and his partner Oscar) are longstanding close friends too, and Homicide detectives (not patrolmen) into the bargain. They have been kept in the loop and in fact make the decision to arrest Doyle, who had not lost his own child at all; while Bressant was ex-Vice squad (where the rogue activities originated) and married to a former prostitute. Unable to have biological children or adopt legally, they had also stolen a child – with strong hints of an established pattern involving many parents deemed deserving or unfit. Thus, among countless elements lost from the plot, such details indicate that, for Lehane, the function of Kenzie and Gennaro’s familiarity with their neighbourhood wasn’t simply getting information from people who don’t trust the authorities. More ambitiously, it was to develop all of the themes of the story from the bottom-up, within a working-class community split along all manner of fault-lines, where no one’s hands are clean or consciences clear – our heroes being just as implicated in the degeneracy that they encounter and sometimes initiate as are the residents saturated with it, the police powerless to control it, and the traditional villains of the piece seeking to profit.

    Duty of Care

    Despite Ben Affleck’s laudable effort to translate the substance of its original subtlety and force into screen entertainment, then, Gone, Baby, Gone’s passage from the written word loses, to a significant extent, its characters’ embedding in a collective search for meaning in relation to self, family and class in a concrete historical setting. Here, the worldviews of those who grew up poor in the 1970s and 1980s, when the economic, political and geographical profile of urban America twisted so drastically, inevitably involve particular inflections of disillusionment with grand narratives of democracy and freedom and broken promises of upward mobility and social inclusion. The moral landscapes, intellectual priorities, and practical choices of those of the younger generations who still pursue a better life without succumbing to the seductions of materialistic misanthropy can hardly be expected to show patience with the middle-class liberal pieties that have failed them so miserably. Instead they fall back on their own resources – such as they are – and manage in this story to penetrate opaque veils of deception and delusion, misdirection and malice. In the process the fascistic overtones are exposed of a contemporary cultural eugenics foisted on the weak by the strong in the name of a humanistic duty of care which no alternative means can be found to fulfil. Yet the critics deem this preposterous to the point of mendacity – so that one wonders which world they inhabit.

    Without in any way minimising the dreadful anguish precipitated by a lost child, Lehane cultivates those associations of this iconic image which loom largest in today’s deprived neighbourhoods – not least the shattered aspirations of parents for their offspring and the vain hopes of a bright future among the youth themselves. The careful accretion of biographical detail and the backstories of the protagonists situate these problematics squarely within their lived experience, modulating their ethics and conduct, so that they are fully part of a local scene which, on the other hand, the filmmakers can only objectify in sweeping anthropological survey. Here, Casey Affleck’s self-effacing lead performance at least captures the author’s intention to sidestep the tortured existential solipsism of the traditional private dick (along with his femme fatale’s Oedipal supplement) as the driver of the narrative arc – even if the central role of Kenzie’s extended elective family is also sadly sidelined in the filmic logic. But in fact plot structures are secondary in most Lehane novels, being tailored to wider organising metaphors and signifying chains connecting working-class adjustment to changing conditions – especially in A Drink Before The War (1994) treating racism, gang warfare, political corruption and child abuse and Darkness, Take My Hand (1996) with serial killers given succour by family, neighbourhood, criminal and municipal complicity, as well as in Gone, Baby, Gone and Mystic River.

    However, while Eastwood’s cinema version of the latter retains the quasi-Shakespearean symmetry of three characters representing disastrous facets of masculinity, the emphasis was shifted entirely by downgrading its grounding in the mutual deterioration of their socio-economic and psychological wellbeing – a comparable truncation to that observed with Gone, Baby Gone. So it seems that mainstream US media remain unwilling or unable to countenance stories which properly respect the real misery neoliberal barbarism produces at home among its surplus populations, but also hint at the potential for “genuine solidarity and the pursuit of shared purpose in circumstances in which business as usual is decisively threatened” (see my ‘Rose Coloured Spectacles’, in Variant, No. 27). Whereas the opportunity to follow such lines of flight is increasingly exploited in new-school American crime writing, on screen the balance consistently tilts towards old-school staples of vicious impasse and hopeless tragedy – from, for example, Spike Lee’s 1995 adaptation of Richard Price’s Clockers (1992) through to HBO’s much-heralded television soap opera The Wire, chronicling the small-time drug trade and its policing in Baltimore, Ohio (featuring scripts by Price, Pelecanos and Lehane, among others). Conversely, one cinematic exception to this recalcitrant rule is Ray Lawrence’s remarkable Jindabyne (Australia, 2006). Here an attack on a child again radiates heart-wrenchingly throughout a community, with the murder whodunnit also irrelevant, yet the film closes optimistically as ordinary townsfolk mobilise their sorrowful social fabric towards fellow-feeling and a fresh start (see my review for Freedom magazine, available at http://libcom.org). In other words, it can be done – in the imagination as in real life – however much we are encouraged to disbelieve it.

    www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

    for further essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see also www.variant.org.uk and http://libcom.org

  • Standard Operating Procedure, dir. Errol Morris (2008)

    Telling Tales of Torture, by Tom Jennings

    Iraq, 2003. Thousands of fleeing civilians and comparable numbers rounded up on extremely tenuous suspicion of involvement in the full-scale insurgency cower at its epicentre in Abu Ghraib prison between Baghdad and Fallujah under constant mortar attack and with guards outnumbered several hundreds to one. Ranking Guantanamo veterans and military, CIA and privately-contracted interrogators parachute in to extract information by any means necessary, backed by the Commander-in-Chief and his White House cronies with policies trashing the Geneva Convention. A contingent of young army grunts fresh to this hellhole witness the routine humiliation, torture and murder of detainees. Some complain, but are told it’s their professional and moral duty as warriors for liberty, and with varying degrees of diligence and enthusiasm comply with orders to ‘soften up’ prisoners using ‘standard operating procedures’ devised by superiors. Still partially disbelieving, many shoot cameraphone stills and videos of the planned and sanctioned insanity. These then leak into the public domain, and the rest is history – which director Errol Morris proceeds to comprehensively dissect in his new cinema documentary.

    Standard Operating Procedure centres around spoken testimony from five of the seven low-ranking ‘bad apples’ scapegoated by subsequent inquiries. Sergeant Charles Graner and Ivan Frederick – ringleaders choreographing the sexualised humiliation rituals – were still in jail, but Javal Davis, Sabrina Harman (notoriously smiling thumbs-up over a murdered ‘ghost’ detainee unlisted in prison records), Lynndie England (with hooded prisoner on leash), Megan Ambuhl (now married to Graner; supervising with Harman and England the ‘human pyramid’ of naked Iraqi men) and Roman Krol feature, as do several other former military police alongside their Brigadier-General Janis Karpinski (now demoted to colonel) and the Criminal Investigation Division’s Brent Pack (who assisted the prosecutors) [1]. The interviews – filmed using Morris’ famed Interrotron, whereby interviewees answer straight to camera while actually seeing the questioner – and the gigantised iconic snapshots and video clips (some never seen before in mainstream media) are supplemented by staged ‘illustrations’ of the events described, with ominously-lit widescreen cinematography and melodramatic score reconfiguring Abu Ghraib’s bedlam as sinister gothic otherworld.

    The film’s rendering of human beings in an inhuman situation rather than emblems of evildoing erodes stereotypes of underclass psychopaths relishing malevolence, despite rationalisations of unconscionable cruelty characterised by ambivalence, alienation and disgust at themselves, colleagues, and military and government hierarchies as well as towards purported enemies. Facing uncertain prospects for physical and career survival, the pathetic patriotic training-camp pep-talk of ‘noble causes’ couldn’t completely erase their intelligence and sensitivity or fully underwrite the twisted sadism required of them. And certainly neither could it equip them to comprehend their later demonisation without hefty doses of the bitter fatalistic cynicism and resentful detachment radiating from them now. So letters home from Sabrina Harman to her partner support her assertion that, whereas she saw no option but to follow orders, the photographs were intended as proof of what occurred. Naturally she didn’t imagine them scuppering an otherwise successful cover-up orchestrated by her top-brass – explicitly commanding all relevant visual evidence destroyed once the shit hit the fan – or that she would end up in the dock when those who actually tortured, maimed and killed detainees were never even considered targets of justice. In that sense, then, the whitewash worked.

    Telling Tales of Torture

    Thus far may have sufficed for your bog-standard crusading investigator exposing the stitch-up of relatively defenceless underlings as primary villains of the piece – their bosses all the way to the top wriggling and squirming behind pseudo-legalistic sophistry while pinning medals on each other. But ex-private eye Morris always digs deeper to deconstruct the framing of images (as well as of people) and their deployment in media and informational management to advance institutional interests – The Thin Blue Line (1988) famously saving the life of a prisoner on Death Row, and the Oscar-winning The Fog Of War (2003) laying bare the delusional arrogance of the powerful in the person of Robert McNamara (one of the US government architects of the Vietnam War). Here the material leads in many fascinating directions – most only hinted at, such as the much-vaunted prominence of women in the US armed forces unraveling into archetypal virgins (e.g. Jessica Lynch subjected to faked ‘rescue’ by US Special Forces), witches (Karpinski as ‘bad mother’) and whores (Harman et al fucking with Iraqi men’s heads); yet all, of course, puppet-mastered by patriarchs large and/or small-minded.
    In interviews Morris emphasises that ‘The Photographs Actually Hide Things From Us’ [2] and a rare achievement of his film is showing this awareness emerging naturally among the MP patsies, irrespective of philosophically sophisticated ruminations on virtual hyperreality and spectacle [3]. To Ambuhl, “The pictures only show you a fraction of a second. You don’t see forward, you don’t see behind, you don’t see outside the frame”; Harman concludes “The military is nothing but lies. I took these photos to show what the military’s really really like”; and England shrugs, “It’s drama, it’s life” – cementing the theme of fictionalisation at all levels. The questioning thus extends beyond why these particular images arose, survived and proliferated, to not only their editing and incorporation into discourses concerning the war but, most crucially, what focusing on them as the ‘truth’ of the matter therefore facilitated being excluded from consideration. More conventionally worthy efforts sometimes tackle such complexity – such as the Tate Modern media art exhibition 9 Scripts from a Nation At War [4], which presents the thoughts of various protagonists and observers with different positions, perspectives and prevailing understandings of the Iraq conflict. But the visceral impact of Standard Operating Procedure undermines any simplistic or transparent relationship between information and scientific ‘reality’, exposing the manner of its manipulation in wider structures of contemporary power.

    www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

    Notes
    1. The book version, Standard Operating Procedure: A War Story by Philip Gourevitch & Errol Morris (Picador, 2008), integrates the participant accounts of the operation of Abu Ghraib’s torture regime gathered in research for the film.
    2. see, for example, www.greencine.com/central/morrissop for a comprehensive discussion.
    3. An exhaustive analysis of Sabrina Harman and the Cheshire Cat McGuffin of‘that’ smile can be found in Morris’ New York Times blog (‘The Most Curious Thing’ at http://morris.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/05/19/).
    4. June-August 2008; see Imogen O’Rorke’s review, ‘Flipping the Script’ at www.metamute.org.

    for further essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see also www.variant.org.uk and http://libcom.org

  • Happy-Go-Lucky, dir. Mike Leigh (2008)

    Prozac Attitude. Film review by Tom Jennings, published in Freedom, Vol. 69, No. 14, August 2008.
    Prozac Attitude, by Tom Jennings

    Belying his miserabilist reputation, Mike Leigh’s new film Happy-Go-Lucky celebrates incorrigible optimism – but with the usual twists, finds Tom Jennings

    After virtually unremitting gloom in Mike Leigh’s family dramas All Or Nothing (2002) and Vera Drake (2005) [1], it’s telling that Happy-Go-Lucky’s refreshingly light tone most strongly parallels Johnny’s cynical nihilism in Naked (1993) railing at Thatcherism’s social wasteland. Here, Sally Hawkins’ pitch-perfect portrayal of thirty-year-old primary-schoolteacher Poppy anchors a loose, patchwork narrative also set in North London bedsitland, whereas this single-character study (with superb supporting performances) wards off hopelessness with an insistently positive outlook on adversity – the catchphrase “It makes me laugh!” echoing many of the writer-director’s previous protagonists. Risking sinking under the weight of her own cliches, Poppy nevertheless conveys sufficient complexity and subtle depth to convince – whose intelligible strategy to cope with an apparently fast-deteriorating world moreover retains a motivation to cultivate in everyone around her a sense that life is worth living. The film’s tensions and dynamism then emerge from various manifestations of negativity testing the considerable effort required to sustain this philosophy.
    However, this is no superficial, conservative, feelgood ‘chick-flick’ – despite bright and breezy, colourful lighting, design and widescreen cinematography mirroring Poppy’s garish grunge, wide-eyed sunny non-conformism and all-round Prozac attitude. Straightaway, her joking, self-deprecating banter falters when a sullen shop-assistant won’t cooperate – pretending things aren’t so bad sometimes being simply insulting. Likewise, an ostensibly carefree lifestyle of aimless diversions – particularly with fellow-teacher, flatmate and best friend since college, Zoe (wryly commenting that being grown-up is hard) – palls as pressures to transcend extended adolescence are palpable for all concerned. Inspirational teaching can’t single-handedly ameliorate the damaging domestic environments of the kids, older colleagues are patently unfulfilled by work, and the spin on regular Leigh themes of inter-generational relations and the demands of adulthood is reinforced by the unhappy hostility of Poppy’s two sisters (self-pitying student; straitlaced suburban housewife) counterpointing her zany complacency.
    Happy-Go-Lucky’s women persevere with each other loyally, differences notwithstanding, but three dysfunctional male incarnations interrupt Poppy’s gaiety more decisively. Patience and concerned curiosity uncover the abusive source of a little boy’s bullying, which may still be preempted, while genuine feeling in a night-time encounter with an angrily incoherent homeless man hints at deeper empathy with the anguish of life falling apart. And rejecting the judgmentalism of others is no narcissistic defence because, in the sequence of driving lessons forming the film’s core, even her bitter, paranoid, utterly reactionary instructor isn’t written off. Scott’s conception of education as rigid hidebound rule-systems obviously contradicts her intuitive expressivity but, while rejecting his authoritarian excess, she persists in trying to understand where he’s coming from – which he mistakes for mocking and flirtation, responding even more obsessively and inappropriately. Then, in yet another structural balancing act, her new, rather drippy, social-worker boyfriend allows gentle caring, good humour and the possibility of passionate commitment to coexist – before the camera finally draws back as Poppy and Zoe muse on what the future holds …

    It’s hard to convey the full richness of a Mike Leigh film in a few short paragraphs. Refusing Hollywood’s cardboard cut-out conventions and heroic individual transcendences, he plays with and undermines the generic expectations of melodrama, satire, tragedy and farce in favour of minor crises or tipping points accompanying the slow accretion of painful and pleasurable experience bounded by the intransigence of a heartless world. His preference for characters from lower-class backgrounds originated in a middle-class childhood in a downmarket district of Salford where a keen sociability was fed by encounters with less privileged folk trumping the stultifying conformity of his own household and others like it [2], leading to a lifelong distrust of pretension and pomposity. From this, the strength of his ensemble pieces often lies in the generosity and goodwill found within social networks, but such phenomena are never glibly asserted and frequently overshadowed by the depression and petty malice arising from frustrated needs. Thus points of identification, alienation, sadness, hilarity and antipathy oscillate as viewers recognise themselves and others in characters simultaneously lamented and applauded, but whose integrity is always respected. The work then “aspires to the conditions of documentary” in accurate depictions of real life at specific times in identifiable places, while simultaneously representing ambitious artistic contrivance in building believable human mosaics from scratch [3].
    Exhaustive individual backstories are built in close collaboration with the cast, gradually extending into collective improvisations and rehearsals from which the script is developed. The vast bulk of detail developed in this process subsequently echoes in the final product only in informing behaviour and interaction, where the actors don’t know what will happen before the characters would. Arriving at similar preoccupations to those of cinematic naturalism or social realism, the use of these entirely different means and methods gives the films their direct intensity of impact and honest, sympathetic ambivalence concerning the tragicomedies of ordinary life where relatively unexceptional situations conspire to close down or open up anyone’s potential. Happy-Go-Lucky’s central concern, indeed, is finding a suitable orientation to contemporary tragicomedies and potentials in a context where such widespread political pessimism inclines many to give up altogether. Embodying a vulnerable struggle for maturity while determined not to lose the childlike enchantment with the world that can imagine and provoke renewal, Poppy perhaps tentatively reflects – in typically sly, understated fashion – Leigh’s own ‘socialistic’ and ‘anarchistic’ impulses and hopes [4], since he takes such great pains to acknowledge the uncomfortable texture of mundane daily life precisely in order to “reveal the transformative potential that is continually being generated within it” [5].

    www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

    Notes
    1. see my review of the latter in Freedom, 5th February 2005.
    2. see Amy Raphael (ed), Mike Leigh On Mike Leigh, Faber, 2008.
    3. discussed in detail in Raymond Carney & Leonard Quart, The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World, Cambridge University Press, 2000.
    4. see, for example: Michael Coveney, The World According to Mike Leigh, Harper Collins, 1996; and Howie Movshovitz (ed), Mike Leigh: Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
    5. Garry Watson, The Cinema of Mike Leigh: A Sense of the Real, Wallflower, 2004, p.23.
    Happy-Go-Lucky is released on DVD on 18th August.

    www.variant.org.uk

    www.freedompress.org.uk

    www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

  • The Ghost, by Robert Harris

    A Groupie’s Revenge. Book review by Tom Jennings, published in Freedom, Vol. 69, No. 12, July 2008.
    A Groupie’s Revenge, by Tom Jennings

    The Ghost, by Robert Harris

    This bestselling novelist’s latest interrupts his blockbusting broad-brush historical revisionism, from Fatherland (1993; what if Germany had won WWII?) through Imperium (2006; ancient Roman skullduggery). The Ghost is contemporary; considerably less ‘thrilling’; and narrower in scope, following a worldweary ghostwriter for recently-retired UK Prime Minister Adam Lang to a posh New England resort to hack together hagiographic memoirs. Harris does, however, persist in fictionalising pivotal periods in terms of corruption, conspiracy and complicity among the Great and Good hitherto hidden from mainstream accounts meekly swallowing their platitudinous rationalisations. Here there’s also the obvious hook of Blair’s ‘legacy’ and a spate of superficial political autobiographies trading on present difficulties – although, of course, any resemblance to this novel’s characters is purely coincidental …
    The portrayal of the vapid narcissism of power is decidedly deliberate, nonetheless, as is the murderous conjuncture of corporate unaccountability, elite greed, institutional arrogance and cynical media dishonesty. So the protagonist appropriately proposes to “put some heart” into his spin; whereupon he’s hard-pressed to find any. Skeletons and closets, conversely, proliferate. Not only did the ghost’s predecessor expire in suspicious circumstances, but government support for Bush involved a whole swathe of betrayals – personal, ideological, national – stretching back decades. Maintaining their secrecy threatens our hero too, and the enjoyably daft romp accelerates after he gets a shag with Cherie (sorry, Ruth Lang) and support from a dashing, charismatic ex-Foreign Secretary (who could that be?) clamouring to nobble his former boss as International War Criminal. Finally the dastardly CIA plot is revealed (and covered up) – New Labour was a dirty trick all along.

    … Or, if not that, an exceedingly big bad apple infecting an otherwise noble enterprise. But wait! Wasn’t the writer cheerleader-in-chief embedded in the Third Way offensive? The Sunday Times political journo by Blair’s side during that heady 1997 election night? Who got in a strop when his chum Mandelson sunk (oh yes, and over the Iraq invasion)? Methinks something’s rotten in the isle of Harris, too – strong whiffs of bad faith permeating this extraordinary rendition of chattering-class tabloid malice; its solipsistic tone of action unravelling inside spiteful fantasies; the vanity of self-justifying hindsight paralleling the delusions of paranoia, where the world really is out to get you but not for the reasons your hubris assumes. Beneath the manifest content, the real conspiracy is neoliberal capitalism’s continuity since Thatcher, nurtured and hawked by lickspittle think-tanks and academics pimping economic sophistry to highest bidders both sides of the pond. Labour ‘modernisers’ partook of this poisoned font from the get-go,* learning the codependence of business prosperity on authoritarian states and the art of selling voters out – whereas evil spooks absolve both professional suckers and the entire discursive architecture which insists ‘there is no alternative’.

    * see meticulous research by Lobster editor Robin Ramsay published, for example, in Variant magazine and books including Prawn Cocktail Party (Vision, 1998), The Rise of New Labour (Pocket Essentials, 2002), and new collection Politics and Paranoia (Picnic, 2008).

    The Ghost, published by Hutchinson, is out now in paperback.

    www.variant.org.uk

    www.freedompress.org.uk

    www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

  • Immigration, the Inconvenient Truth, Channel 4, and the White season, BBC2

    The Great White Hopeless, by Tom Jennings.
    Television review of Immigration, the Inconvenient Truth, Channel 4, and the White season, BBC 2
    A rash of TV documentaries explain away tense British resident-immigrant relations with typical middle-class prejudice in reproducing forty years of media and state-managed mystifications of the ravages of capitalism, according to Tom Jennings.

    Great White Hopeless

    Shock, horror! Television bosses recently made the surprise discovery of defensive, backward-looking racism among the depressed, so-called ‘indigenous white working class’. Purporting to explore this phenomenon, BBC 2’s White Season (screened in March) and Channel 4’s Dispatches, Immigration: The Inconvenient Truth (April) focussed on recent UK population trends. Each resurrected Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech as the most appropriate interpretive prism through which to understand hardening attitudes towards immigrants and the electoral gains of the BNP (who vocally applauded the series). So although countless interesting and enlightening aspects of the subject crop up in passing throughout all nine programmes, many important issues are ignored altogether. The clear editorial direction imposed on the material – neglected poor white natives blame migrants for their woes, and that Powell was (kind of) right – is legitimised and reinforced despite being repeatedly undercut even by much of the partial and selective evidence gathered.

    The Beeb’s hotch-potch started with the classic observational elegy of Last Orders. The ex-Labour committee members of Wibsey Working Men’s Club bemoan its decline, with support having haemorrhaged for decades – yet regretfully cite the overweening problem of Bradford’s growing Asian population. No one’s quite clear on cause and effect, or why mainstream politicians are uninterested in the impoverishment and social breakdown of their community of “forgotten people”. Meanwhile the destruction of local industries which depended on Asian labour, or the blatant manipulation of the race card by all municipal parties and media ever since, are hardly mentioned – let alone countervailing voices with a less jaundiced and prejudiced and more critical awareness of the situation. With the pattern set, complexity is obliterated completely in Denys Blakeway’s putrid glossing of Rivers of Blood with contemporary allusion – ‘forgetting’ that the whole analysis, its assumptions and predictions, were completely wrong for 1968 (never mind now) despite Powell’s best efforts kickstarting the poisonous national chauvinism that Griffin etc inherit [1]. The disavowed subtext? If middle-class white people wish-fulfil themselves as “last bastions of civilisation”, alliance with boneheads becomes respectable.
    The following programmes more or less subtly put the boot into the white underclass. White Girl fictionalises a Northern teenager (from a 2006 Channel 4 documentary) finding refuge in Islam from a dysfunctional home – whereas such narratives could apply to any class, race or creed. The Primary’s Birmingham school with kids of 17 different nationalities just about copes despite inevitable difficulties – by implication, in this context, thanks to the utter absence of white working class people. The Poles Are Coming! then looks at Eastern Europeans in Peterborough working more diligently in worse conditions than locals tolerate in construction and agriculture. Though focussing on infrastructural and planning chaos and the fracturing of community by the buy-to-let slum-landlord epidemic, migrants themselves are squarely positioned as the problem’s cause – with anti-social workshy white youth in the background making it a crisis. Finally, All White in Barking gestures towards ‘balance’ in comparing old-school Essex responses to the global influx – one pensioner glaring hatefully at African residents and organising BNP stalls, apparently without registering that his kids and grandkids are colour-blind and/or mixed-race; while another couple transcend similar hostility and suspicion by befriending Nigerian and Albanian neighbours, and an elderly Auschwitz survivor squires his Ugandan carer at a local Jewish community dinner.

    A better title for the Dispatches trilogy, fronted by son of Somali immigrants Rageh Omaar, would have been ‘Immigration, the Convenient Scapegoats’. Relentlessly suppressing evidence to the contrary, the narrative consistently asserted that we all subscribe to ‘swamping’ logic, using a specially-commissioned YouGov public opinion survey which bore all the hallmarks of such spurious, tendentious pseudo-science.
    Trusting viewers to swallow outrageous extrapolations from flimsy ‘proof’, even cursory attention revealed confusion about who counted as Britons or ‘settled migrants’ or their descendants, and what difference this made to assertions of immigration being “a problem” or “in crisis”.
    The clumsy Yes/No questions disallowed considered responses and virtually ensured inaccurate results, whereas many of the empirical findings were clearly far more ambiguous than the simplistic editorial agenda permitted. So, by the third episode, the apocalyptic tone had subsided somewhat. But instead of the obvious need to question the whole basis of official nationalist and multiculturalist discourses, the tangible awareness that global economics had something to do with it prompted a retreat to the favoured culprit – the inflexibly hopeless white working class unable to compete in the New World Order. But the visible desperation and hardship twisted into resentment in many places is only part of that story, which the BBC and Channel 4 had neither the bottle, desire, nor wit to follow up [2].
    To conclude, then, as I argue elsewhere [3], this current affairs coverage disingenuously maintains “distinctions between those whose survival is most imminently threatened and the comfort zones of aspirational experience – just when the economic and structural conditions which underwrote the flight from drudgery for the twentieth century’s new middle-classes unravel before our eyes … [P]rofessional media tourists avoid the countless people making horizontal links, conducting joint operations, productive relationships, cultural exchanges and social interactions at the base. Thus a view of society is reproduced as no more than interlocking networks of exclusion zones, where the only negotiation between dimensions of difference – whether biological, social or economic – occurs on the state’s terms at its own designated, tightly-policed sites, carried out by the market’s credentialled experts. In which case converging material situations, interests, expressions and struggles among foreigners, natives, underclasses and the new nearly-destitute simply disappear from view”. Furthermore the best corrective can be found where rivers of blood literally flow from the vicious intersection of capitalist structural adjustment and national state ideology – yet South African militant shantydwellers counter xenophobic violence insisting: “Don’t turn your suffering neighbours into enemies” [4].

    Notes
    1. see Institute of Race Relations, ‘Rehabilitating Enoch Powell’ (www.irr.org.uk/2008/march/ha000018.html).
    2. … on this occasion, anyway. In less threatening contexts the fortunes of the ‘white tribe’ have, for example, been cheerfully charted by Michael Collins – though scrupulously avoiding the politically conscious and active – in The Likes Of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class (Granta, 2004) and The British Working Class (Channel 4, 2005).
    3. in ‘Craven New World’, Variant 32, pp.9-12 (www.variant.randomstate.org/32texts/issue32.html). See also ‘The End of Tolerance’, Daniel Jewesbury’s useful discussion of UK racism in the same issue.
    4. in a statement by Durban-based Abahlali baseMjondolo, ‘No One Is Illegal’ (www.abahlali.org/node/3582).
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