Tom Jennings

  • Couscous, dir. Abdellatif Kechiche (France 2007)

    The Fine-Grain of Community. Film review by Tom Jennings, published in Freedom, Vol. 69, No. 15, August 2008
    The Fine-Grain of Community, by Tom Jennings

    Tom Jennings is captivated by Couscous and its sympathetic but unflinchingly honest portrait of an extended family struggling to make various ends meet.

    Writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche’s new film details the bonds and fissures within a French-Tunisian clan and social network beset by sundry economic, cultural and institutional pressures in the Mediterranean port of Sête, where the fishing and shipbuilding industries are rapidly declining. The film’s title (originally Le Graine et le Mulet – semolina grain and mullet; couscous’ contrasting main ingredients) emphasises the patterns and texture of daily existence, and its central set-piece mealtime scenes directly echo classic French family melodrama – though in a socio-economic milieu alien to the familiar upper-middle-class complacency. Superficially resembling Robert Guedigian’s downbeat Marseille-based social realism, here the manipulation of script, structure and pacing interconnects multiple levels of reference and significance to give an epic, novelistic feel. Fortunately this doesn’t detract from the specificity of characters and situations – Kechiche and the largely non-professional (but completely convincing) cast hailing from the background portrayed and intimate with the trials and tribulations tackled.
    Facing redundacy after refusing to sacrifice craftsmanship to ‘flexibility’, world-weary 60 year-old ship’s carpenter Slimane (an impressively restrained Habib Boufares) collects fish from trawlermen mates and distributes them to his ex-wife Souad and their children’s families – whose responses (to him, his news and the fish) reflect their own diverse dilemmas and difficulties. The mullet eventually surface in Souad’s renowned Sunday-lunch – Slimane is not invited, but sons Hamid (unemployed) and Majid (an inveterate womaniser) deliver some to the low-rent hotel owned by his new partner Latifa. They suggest he return to the Tunisia he left as a young man, but instead he spends his severance renovating a rotting hulk into a floating restaurant showcasing Souad’s couscous. Latifa’s teenage daughter Rym (the superb Hafsia Herzi) helps negotiate the patronising, prejudicial, dismissive town bureaucracy, and everyone pitches in preparing for an opening night to seal official licensing. But Majid disappears for an assignation with the centrepiece semolina still in his car-boot, and the film ends with Slimane running round in circles in pursuit while Rym and his Tunisian friends entertain those gathered with traditional music and bellydance …

    Couscous skilfully deploys, and undermines, prevailing multiculturalist discourses which misrepresent the immigrant experience as exotically (and dangerously) distinct from a supposedly indigenous mainstream – emphasising many interacting dimensions of difference which only translate into ‘otherness’ from a wilfully separate perspective. This family is thoroughly integrated in terms of local employment, neighbourhood and marriage, embodying a range of relationships with ‘native’ French and people from other backgrounds. Cross-cultural contrasts may result in enrichment and/or conflict, with outcomes impossible to simplistically attribute to tribal cliches – compare, for example, Majid’s betrayed Russian wife, bereft in isolation, with Slimane and Souad’s fully embedded estrangement. Furthermore, drawing on roots and customs can reinforce collective memory, practice and orientation; but may also represent defensive constraint – the illusory allure of looking backward when Slimane considers giving up, or the compulsion towards kin cohesion effectively colluding in Majid’s destructive philandering while keeping Latifa and Rym at arm’s length.
    Crucially, issues of race and racism, while not denied, are only decisive when modulated by class division and hierarchy. Thrown on the modern economy’s scrapheap, Slimane rescues its rejected flotsam – not just the boat, but himself and what social and cultural capital he can muster – and gambles on his own account. Ironically, self-commodification in the post-industrial service sector entails artificially singling out, objectifying and amplifying those very markers of special identity that hitherto nourished everyday life in concert with all the other influences. Now, providing a niche-market ‘ethnic’ product means simultaneously appealing to, competing with, and satisfying the disciplinary gazes of the middle-class establishment. The business community leaders, local government functionaries, hangers-on and tourists are thus conflated here in the restaurant’s homogeneously grotesque, increasingly drunken patrons seeking suitably aestheticised touristic experience while remaining oblivious to the underpinning mundane human dramas reminiscent of working-class struggles to survive and thrive the world over.
    The film’s bravest risk is to suspend this climax on an unbearably drawn-out knife-edge, with no way to predict the result. Confronting his desire to leave an enduring legacy after a disappointed life, our scarcely authoritative patriarch sets events in motion with his secular ‘loaves and fishes’, but heroic individualism is decidedly beside the point as he flails helplessly at the mercy of others. The kids stealing his moped crystallise his waning agency, leaving younger generations to work it out for themselves – with prospects hinging on the balance of internal forces as much as external limits. Nevertheless, the strengths and shortcomings of the elders appear uncannily reflected in their descendants, though recomposing in very different circumstances. If the daughters’ invocation of engagement, perseverance and solidarity can overcome pride and resentment and help galvanise the sons from their reluctance to act responsibly, the cultural matrix inherited from the past – whether concerning music, food or love – could clinch the blending of capabilities in fruitful directions. Devised partly as Kechiche’s tribute to his own father (a friend of the lead actor who died shortly before filming), Couscous succeeds well beyond his aim “to show all the complexities of this Franco-Arabic family … looking to a future which does not necessarily mean the denial of their own identity”.*

    * Abdellatif Kechiche, in Ginette Vincendeau, ‘Southern Discomfort’, Sight & Sound, July 2008, p.47.

  • 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.

  • Craven New World (2008), by Tom Jennings

    Essay review of dystopian visions in contemporary film, television and art, including Taking Liberties, Faceless, Children Of Men, The Last Enemy, Exodus and Polly II: A Plan For Revolution in Docklands.

    Craven New World by Tom Jennings

    [Essay review of dystopian visions in contemporary film, television and art, including Taking Liberties, Faceless, Children Of Men, The Last Enemy, Exodus and Polly II: A Plan For Revolution in Docklands.]

    Documenting attacks on civil freedoms in Britain the film Taking Liberties (2007) was made for cinema because such a “one-sided” (read honest) appraisal of the Blair regime’s record was thought unlikely to survive the requirements of “balance” (read censorship) on television [1]. Supported by Fahrenheit 9/11’s producers, Taking Liberties apes Michael Moore’s populist combo of comic buffoonery and acid commentary and romps through New Labour’s neurotic erosion of rights to privacy, protest and freedom of speech, its tacit embrace of imprisonment without trial, unaccountable extradition and torture. Recounting the personal experiences of a swathe of victims, from peace protesters to those persecuted in the War on Terror, a convincing picture of escalating totalitarianism is then sketched against a background of animated vignettes showing centuries’ worth of legal ‘checks and balances’ on state power. This is all set to a jaunty Britpop soundtrack. Unfortunately, the potential of mocking the powerful is undermined by a tone veering from flippant to hysterical, before being ultimately ruined by dissolving into overstatements of incipient Nazi-ness among parliamentary leaders and an astounding cluelessness about the prospects of influencing them [2].

    Worse, the film’s broad-brush, knee-jerk jingoism cripples any political understanding of past or present. Ancient constitutional antecedents are all very well for patronising children with, but the routine reality of peremptory injustice in recent decades has shaped the patterns of close interference now being ratcheted up; from Northern Ireland policy, racist policing and the internment of immigrants; to Tory anti-union and criminal justice legislation and the penalisation of ‘antisocial’ behaviour. Kowtowing to globalising capitalism necessitates welfare suffering, while lower-class community, collectivity and autonomy is hammered to shortcircuit resistance. But Taking Liberties ignores the structural and economic frameworks within which governments discipline their subjects, let alone how they achieve apparent consent for it. Instead we’re asked to sympathise with rich US bankers suspected of corporate fraud – after all, ‘we’re all in this together’, a supposedly ‘freedom-loving’ people. This lack of analysis leaves the film wallowing in middle-class moral superiority and outrage, urging self-righteous symbolic protest. Is this more a recipe for apathy than active opposition?

    The UK government legitimises the increasing regulation of the populace in terms of administrative efficiency rather than historical precedence or legal niceties. Even a cursory questioning sees the pragmatic justifications for the National Identity Register and attendant technologies collapse like a house of (identity) cards, yet the debate stubbornly clings to nationalist sentiment [3]. The latest edition of Mute magazine helps make the stakes clearer. As Josephine Berry Slater points out, “The basic survival of the poor, undocumented or ‘illegalised’ often depends on the ability to operate [in a] … grey zone of anonymity [which] is constantly squeezed in the interests of population management, border enforcement, welfare clamp-downs, technocratic convenience and, of course, the economy” [4]. In fact, precisely those realms of experience which Taking Liberties ignores.

    Meanwhile, mainstream political discourse brooks no argument that only the free movement of capital allows society to survive and prosper, thanks to the expert, rational-market disposition of resources. But accelerating human and environmental degradation resulting from the application of neoliberal ideology generates inevitable crises, the intransigence of which is disavowed when they are treated merely as management conundrums. Thus the incipient panopticon society obsessively maximises data collection, in the pretence that mass bureaucratisation allows the competent administration of otherwise insoluble problems. In the resulting climate of increasingly routinised emergencies and attendant moral panics, and the overall prospect of multiple impending catastrophes, everyone excluded from polite society can be blamed and targeted while those fortunate enough to temporarily reap the dubious benefits of consumerism look the other way and defend ‘civilisation’ [5]. With each burning issue merely grist to media headline-mills, ordinary current affairs paradigms plainly lack the imagination to make sense of such extraordinary circumstances. Conversely, the mysteries of the future are science-fiction’s stock-in-trade, and so what follows seeks signs of hope in recently screened dystopian visions that reflect prevailing trends in biopolitical divide and rule [6].

    The Data Protection Act supposedly safeguards against abuse by making transparent what information, about us, private and state agencies collect. In recognition of the epidemic of CCTV systems across the UK (now the internal surveillance capital of the world) its scope was widened in 1998 to include visual imaging. Crime prevention budgets are increasingly syphoned off into an expanding surveillance manufacturing industry’s profits, despite failing to have any significant impact in the reduction of offences. Meanwhile, the sinister centrality of surveillance technology in New Labour’s plans for an integrated database and ID card seems threatened only by the bungling of IT entrepreneurs and bureaucrats. But, apart from the usual suspects, the wider British public seem remarkably acquiescent to intrusion. So, is the public really bewitched by anti-social crime and terror hype, hypnotised by spectacular media, wrong-footed by seductive virtuality, and domesticated by reality TV? Given that no less a figure than the government’s Information Commissioner Richard Thomas deems us to have already “sleepwalked” into dystopia, it seems pertinent to ask – riffing on Dr Strangelove – whether we have ‘learned to stop worrying and love Big Brother’ [7].

    Media art collective Ambient TV share the concern, and decided to extend their Spy School (2002) dramatisations of hitherto hidden assemblages of data held on citizens into a “science-fiction fairytale” patchwork comprised of visual material plucked from this matrix, with a storyline fitting the philosophical framework used to justify and regulate official omniscience. The result is Manu Luksch’s surprisingly beguiling Faceless (2007) – helped in part by Ballet Boyz choreography, Mukul Patel’s haunting soundtrack and Tilda Swinton’s austere voiceover – which emphasises the DPA stricture that individuals deemed uninteresting have their features obliterated, with those remaining targeted for action [8]. The tragic protagonist (necessarily played by Luksch herself) lacks reflexivity or emotion beyond the narcotising flow of interaction with the ubiquitous New Machine. Then, a sudden discovery: she has a face! In her job as data monitor this signifies a disturbance to the status quo, destined to be corrected in the interests of stability and safety. But with personal identity come fragments of memory and fantasy, prompting awareness of possible pasts and futures along with uncertainty and fear. Exploiting newly incipient agency, her quest to evade oblivion is enlivened by encounters with mysterious Spectral Children, whose joyful unpredictability confounds the control apparatus. Sadly, they give disastrous advice to trust her instincts, but with no opportunity to develop such skills she soon succumbs to re-zombification.

    This apparently conclusive fatalism is misleading, however, since the pivotal social engineering here occurs in reprogramming centres which brainwash people into numb passivity – not the global data-web itself (policed for deviation as administrative corollary). But how these function – or not, permitting escape – is withheld, thereby disabling viewers’ suspension of disbelief. Fittingly, the logistical nightmare of planning a coherent storyboard against the vagaries of CCTV operators complying with legislation (exposing the fiction of state-dispensed ‘rights’) mirrors the impossibility of sketching dystopian citizens with subjectivities echoing digital representations. The fairytale fails precisely because the principles behind Faceless were too rigorous, taking at ‘face value’ the viewpoint of power. The government’s fantasy of comprehensive knowledge of the population likewise makes scant human sense, whereas its implacable thirst for control will be far more pragmatically baleful. The film’s major artistic weakness therefore signals crucial (though unacknowledged) political potential. As its makers conclude: “The panopticon is not complete, yet. Regardless, could its one-way gaze ever assure an enabling conception of security?” Clearly, neither that nor a secure ability to conceive – and although beyond this film’s ambition, the relationships between the excluded and included (Spectral Children, and adults, and the erstwhile organic robots) would be key to dismantling the rigid walls of regimented otherness.

    Apocalypse Soon

    Alfonso Cuarón’s Children Of Men (2006) paints a contrasting but equally ominous picture of a near future where dystopian ghosts in machines are exorcised by default – with global environmental collapse, mass starvation and a global pandemic leaving humanity infertile. Nevertheless, Bulldog Britain soldiers on, demonising tidal waves of illegal immigrants escaping societal meltdown elsewhere, its increasingly totalitarian government trumping the public’s despair at impending extinction with ‘homeland security’ repression while benevolently distributing ‘Quietus’ self-euthanasia kits for those not succumbing to day-of-judgement fundamentalisms. A rag-tag resistance dodges the rampant militarised police around an exceedingly grubby and battered London in which death squads, random bombings and cages full of foreigners on their way to incarceration litter rubbish-filled streets. Woken from drunken disillusionment by an old flame’s quest, Clive Owen’s civil servant, Theo, then flip-flops around saving the world’s only pregnant woman – fetching up in Bexhill-on-Sea dressed as monstrous concentration camp – their flight captured in superb action sequences with bravura handheld single-takes, modulated with poignant moments of stillness amidst the bloodbath as the unexpected sight and sound of infancy resurrect temporary empathy.

    However, the narrative is less daring than the award-winning cinematography and set design, which achieve an effectively estranged familiarity throughout. Whereas a previous UK-set dystopia V For Vendetta scuppered every ounce of political nous in its literary source [9], crime writer P.D. James’ novel here had little anyway. So the rainbow coalition of urban guerilla ‘Fishes’ (a symbol used by clandestine early Christians, signposting the messianic underbelly of moral politics) opposes the fascist state only by demanding human rights for refugees. Yet these former anti-war, civil rights and green activists launch armed insurrection! The film’s naff nativity fable subsequently crumbles into faith in scientific progress (the mythical ‘Human Project’ run by ‘the best brains in the world’ on the good ship ‘Tomorrow’), as, in an echo of John Wyndham or J.G. Ballard’s bleakly bilious postwar sci-fi critiques of bourgeois English anomie, Cuarón twists James’ high-church, high-Tory spiritual self-flagellation. The elites barricade themselves in to brazen out armageddon while Theo’s death, delivering (Black refugee) madonna and (female) child to sanctuary, finesses the conclusion that middle-class heroism (physical or philosophical) offers no solution.

    Cuaron’s first feature, Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), cleverly seasoned its road-trip sex tragicomedy with a voiceover insistently detailing the contemporaneous Mexican socio-economic convulsions that the upper-class protagonists remained oblivious to. Children of Men’s more starkly visual disjunction contrasts the immediacy of the suffering excludeds with the incapacity of the comfortable to recognise the culpability of their enlightened positions in the mess surrounding them. Slavoj Zizek interprets this philosophical infertility as the ideological despair of late capitalism, with no sense of history or agency possible in a liberal-democratic worldview which actively fosters disaster while precluding political renewal [10]. Nevertheless the film’s lack of engagement with the dispossessed themselves rather works against Zizek’s conclusion – citing the recurrent motif of crossing water – that overcoming the present impasse requires an acceptance of rootlessness, cutting emotive ties just as the migrants have done with their physical ones. After all, a baptism into fresh solidarity chosen by cosmopolitan intellectuals – already arguable as useful strategy – scarcely compares to the nourishment of collective memory amid desperate necessity.

    Mission Implausible

    The conspiracy thriller The Last Enemy, which occupied five primetime Sunday night slots on BBC1 in February-March 2008, extrapolates more narrowly in projecting only several years hence, albeit with decisive technological advances considerably enhancing identity-paranoia. Returning to terror-struck Britain for his twin’s funeral after working abroad, renowned mathematician Stephen (Benedict Cumberbatch) witnesses first-hand the downside of fully integrated monitoring with pre-emptive policing. Biometric ID cards are scanned in all mundane movements or transactions, and any anomaly automatically prompts armed intervention; card use being prohibited forthwith. Recruited by the Home Office’s latest PR drive for computerised security, he tests the new system to discover the fate of his NGO sibling supposedly killed helping Afghan refugees afflicted with a mystery illness. Unwittingly opening sundry cans of political, corporate, diplomatic, and academic science worms, Stephen becomes a target of officialdom. With informal subsistence all but impossible, he falls in with an unlikely band of aid-workers, illegal immigrants, renegade intelligence officers … and his brother, now also underground having faked his own death.

    With timely scenario and entertainingly helter-skeleter pacing making for effective hokum – despite unconvincing personal ties among excessively narcissistic characters – the drama is infinitely less subversive than claimed [11]. At least, though, the refugees and migrants are given independent human texture, agency and social milieux, even while still depending on salvation by criminalised professionals and professional criminals – fake IDs, naturally, abound; but welfare and charity staff, only able to fulfil their remits by acting illegally is both original and suggestive. And while the national and international dimensions of skullduggery and cynicism also ring true, in classic parapolitical vein, they deflect attention from the nitty gritty of life for the majority in favour of the privileged significance of shallow heroes and villains acting outside of the deep structuring logics of institutions. As in Children of Men, we only get glimpses of the indigenous excluded, kept safely at arms length from all other social fractions – here a mere handful of hopeless homeless abjectly selling their blood and robbing each other for peanuts in a disappointing conservative echo of ASBO rhetoric.

    Even more disastrously for present relevance, problems associated with the technology are restricted to its misuse – partly through function-creep, but mainly by corrupt careerists furthering agendas unerringly encouraged by business amoralism. In itself this is doubtless accurate, but New Labour’s shambolic PFI roll-outs also prove the utter incapacity of the systems to deliver on processing or fit-for-purpose promises. The Last Enemy’s effortlessly smooth operation of Total Information Awareness is, however, taken for granted. Even the supremely sinister nanotech radio-frequency tags, secretly injected into bloodstreams, appear neutral in principle – apart from their racially-specific, medical side-effects. The latter contrivance simultaneously kills both the narrative’s victims and its pretensions to sharp critique of the surveillance state. Tolerably workable, hard-, soft-, and live-ware is, after all, the crux of government spin. But their likelihood is contradicted by all the available evidence [12] – making stolen identity a risk; victimised identity a probability; and mistaken identity, via faulty data and erroneous interpretation, a commonplace. Yet countless personally disastrous bungles and stitch-ups – which ordinary folk would have least chance of sorting – would inevitably entail disproportionately lower-class effects, which are rendered irrelevant and invisible here compared to those of noble philanthropists selflessly serving helpless clients.

    Minority Retort

    More promisingly, the marginalised and repressed return with a vengeance in Exodus, written and directed by Penny Woolcock and screened by Channel 4 in November 2007. The film attenuates the Old Testament saga down to a parochial parable set in Margate, with local non-actors – for many of whom issues of migration and exclusion were immediate personal concerns – cast in all but a few leading roles [13]. In this new testament, charismatic mayor Pharoah Mann (Bernard Hill with suitably ridiculous barnet) has turned a formerly depressed borough – re-christened the Promised Land – into something of a BNP fantasy of a municipal fiefdom, where the respectable WASP majority have expelled from their midst a veritable anti-shopping list of undesirables. So members of ethnic minorities, asylum seekers and immigrants, homosexuals, the jobless and feckless, drunks, junkies, psychiatric cases and petty criminals have all been dumped in Dreamland – a shanty settlement nestling in the ruins of a funfair on the outskirts – and abandoned to fend for themselves. Of course, someone still has to undertake the menial and shit-work, but scrupulous surveillance and ruthless movement restrictions ensure that the lower ranks, minutely checked-in and out, barely subsist while being unable to extricate themselves from apartheid imprisonment.

    When Pharoah’s adoptive son Moses turns eighteen, he learns from liberal-minded Mrs Mann that his real Romany mother gave him up at birth hoping he might thrive among history’s favoured. He resolves to search her out, having long been hurt by the condescending treatment given the family maid (another maternal substitute), but immediately witnesses the arbitrary brutal dehumanisation perpetrated by the ‘Pest Control’ police in Dreamland’s nightmare. He feels compelled to intervene violently and becomes a fugitive there, meeting his family distaff and marrying into the riff-raff. Increasingly appreciative of the unbelievably embattled community’s fortitude, spirit and potential, his tentative suggestions of unity go largely derided until his father-in-law, a gentle ghetto pedagogue, is murdered while protecting a pupil. Kickstarting feverish activity with the defiant affirmative gesture of a gigantic funeral pyre, escalating organisation and public confrontations demanding deliverance develop into outright guerilla sabotage, taking advantage of sophisticated knowhow honed individually in bonded servitude and now wielded for collective purpose. Modern biological, chemical and electronic versions of old Egypt’s plagues (thus translating divine intervention from hegemonic theological support into the practical weaponry of the weak – a brave and potent, if troubling, rhetorical manoeuvre in the present conjuncture) wreak mortal havoc in the Promised Land, and finally, the defeated fuhrer caves in and strikes down the gates. The longed-for exodus, however, heralds hand-to-hand slaughter on the beach …

    There’s no doubting the integrity of Woolcock’s commitment, giving voice and expression to society’s outcasts and fashioning working practices which flout routine mainstream pretensions and hierarchies so as to respect, celebrate and empower hidden and suppressed storytelling [14]. But mortal wounds to this narrative’s body-politic are inflicted by its construction and focus – with a quite unwarranted mirroring of Pharoah and Moses and their respective spheres of influence. Dominated by high-bourgeois oedipal dynamics, the latter’s sullen adolescent demeanour hamstrings any convincing capacity to engage or energise others, and (presumably unintentionally) the uprising ends up resembling a miserable vanguardist farce with scant sign of genuine grass-roots engines. Rather than cod-psychohistory, the mythos of prophecy would surely better emerge from the fine-grain of the internal conflicts and specific material circumstances of the Dreamlanders – where the awakening sense of mission fed on their own cultural fecundity rather than a resentful leader’s personality deficiencies which yield predictably reactionary results. Despite its welcome attention to processes transforming suffering into struggle, then, the admittedly well-shot Exodus is sunk right from botched conception – with clunky structure and contrived script marooning some decent individual performances (especially from the amateurs) which appear to belong in completely separate dramatic universes [15].

    Alienated: Resurrection
    Worlds past, present and future eerily co-exist in a specific parallel universe in Polly II: Plan for a Revolution in Docklands (2006), Anja Kirschner’s marvellous carnivalesque allegory of an underground underwater London after global warming leads to breached tidal barriers. The bibles drawn on here are of impeccable rabble-rousing provenance: John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (plus its lesser-known sequel Polly) whose staging was deconstructed in The Threepenny Opera. The project –

    “part satirical sci-fi, part soap opera and Brechtian ‘Lehrstueck’ – portrays the lives of pirates and outcasts surviving in the flooded ruins of East London, a lawless zone set to become the latest in luxury waterside living according to government plans and venturing developers’ wet dreams. The film imagines a future insurrection coloured by the legacy of dispossessed peasants, political radicals, whores, sailors … and former slaves who once inhabited East London and fought a daily battle against their subjection to poverty,
    displacement and judicial terror” [16].

    The story’s thrust follows perceptive questioning by the narrator of a welter of contradictory discourses competing to structure her understanding of, and hence action within, the mayhem falteringly presided over by the feudal elite. Engaging in bitter struggle to survive, Polly and her cohorts adopt stances which mobilise them in various barely official or frankly criminal enterprises undermining the monopolisation of resources by vested interests. With traditional certainties turned upside down, the disoriented and impoverished populace is fractured by any number of crippling hostilities and rivalries but liable to see through the morass in the difficult forging of common cause.

    The resonance of an essentially pre-proletarian Polly II with prospects in contemporary neoliberal urban blight (euphemised as renewal, gentrification or sterilisation, depending on outlook) is tempered considerably by the iron grip of spatial mastery now pursued by the state and its corporate speculator clientele in regulating an inconvenient lower-class presence [17]. Moreover, the unfolding strategy to cybernetically discipline the lifeworlds of previously upwardly-mobile strata is acompanied by the proletarianisation of precarious informational sectors of the middle classes, at the same time as state welfare functions are being downsized, privatised and degraded. Of course, the explicit logic and efficacy of these tactics are themselves supremely doubtful. In addition, the mass squeezing of all manner of petty-bourgeois, lumpen and working-class fractions into collective exclusion, with diverse degrees and levels of psychic and economic desperation, is unlikely to be affordable and manageable: either by the carceral containment of plantation slavery (e.g. in the US and China; possibly coming soon to Britain) or by neo-Stalinist social democracy (Latin America, South Africa). And that’s before considering the ravages of ecological disaster that international capital is learning to reckon into its insane calculations. But blueprints weren’t in any case Kirschner’s intention:

    “To some extent the plot of Polly II was based on actual events from the 18th century […]. But I’m not depicting or referencing these moments so they can be measured against so many subsequent defeats or presented as easily digestible celebrations of ‘heritage’ or downright nostalgia (and I have little sympathy for re-enactments on that level); rather, I use them because they penetrate the present like so many callings and loopholes whose explosive potential still speaks to us” [18].
    Such mobile constellations of class, culture, power and practical capacity have characterised previous cycles of grass-roots responses to tectonic shifts in economic exploitation and instrumental governmentality, as revealed in many recent radical histories [19]. Even within the activities of the industrial proletariat as understood in more familiar Marxist terms, class composition, conciousness and praxis have been thoroughly and complexly woven through community and cultural biography in ways that elude the programmatic socialist or Leninist grasp. Paul Mason’s inspirational Live Working Or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global (Vintage, 2008) indicates how patterns of solidarity, refusal, mutual aid and autonomy have persisted across otherwise alien centuries. Fresh modes of orientation to the state’s New Public Management are also emerging within structurally-adjusted societies in First, Second and Third Worlds – as discussed, for example, in Michael Neocosmos’ innovative South African analysis which highlights the magnificent Durban shackdwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo [20]. And, despite the vicious megalomania of New Labour and the Tories’ common ground – competing to punish anyone and everyone on suspicion of anything and everything – it would seem the height of arrogance to assume some unique divergence from these epochal trends in this benighted land …

    … Or perhaps not arrogance, so much as escapism – and that’s the purpose of juxtaposing documentary realism and frivolous futurist entertainment here. The contemporary cultural artefacts examined work hardest of all to maintain 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. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the surprise discovery by TV bosses of defensive, backward-looking ignorance among the depressed, so-called ‘indigenous white working class’. BBC 2’s White season and Channel 4’s Immigration: The Inconvenient Truth [21] legitimise the racism and antagonism found as intelligible responses to economic restructuring, while new migrants attempt to forge a future from starvation wages, casual hostility and official contempt. However, great care is taken for the professional media tourists to avoid the countless people and places 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.
    Writer Margaret Atwood called recently for a re-assessment of the respective merits of Brave New World and 1984, seeing a need to measure the travails of consumer capitalism and globalisation against Aldous Huxley and George Orwell’s contrasting anti-utopias [22]. Of course the question is misplaced, since neither hangover from Victorian middle-class moral conservatism could predict how the tortured and/or noble proles would fare in the New World Orders of their time. So these authors’ best efforts to twist the enlightened (or not) liberal consciences of their milieux, thereby masquerading as ordinary folk, hardly succeed even in articulating the presence of the bulk of humanity whose quite different agendas and actions would be decisive. Irrespective of any of their strengths, Taking Liberties and the other fictions cited here (with the exception of Polly II) fail for comparable reasons – whereas tackling themes of unholy unruly otherness directly, honestly and empathetically is central, as it happens, to the most useful prognostications of sci-fi’s genuinely critical dystopias [23]. Finally, therefore, and to reverse the point – as well as travestying Giorgio Agamben’s famous notion of ‘Homo sacer’, the abject human object of pity [24] : Is it instead the achievement of Faceless to suggest that an empty, static, sterile existence is actually what is planned for the fortunate included?

    1. perhaps symptomatic of writer-director Chris Atkins’ self-important naivete. Taking Liberties was screened on More 4 on May 6th, 2008.
    2. To Atkins: “Our only hope is that Brown is desperate to claw back some of the popularity that Blair has lost, so if it becomes a big political issue then he might turn back the authoritarian tide to try and win votes” (Socialist Review); and “If several thousand people go to mass lone demos the Metropolitan Police will beg Gordon Brown to repeal the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act” (
    3. Journalist Henry Porter’s assiduous reporting of the ID card plans regrettably fits this template, e.g. in: ‘Blair Laid Bare: the article that may get you arrested’, The Independent, 29th June 2006. The No2ID campaign’s otherwise excellent coverage flirts too with civil liberties particularism (but see Martin Twomey, ‘State of Denial’, 2007,; whereas the Anarchist Federation widen the argument decisively towards class-consciousness – in, for example, ‘The Panopticon Society’, at – regular updates also appearing in the Resistance bulletin ( Recourse to the imagined community of nation is a persistent problem with Michael Moore’s work too – see, on Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), my ‘Extracting the Michael’, Variant 21, September 2004; and on Sicko (2007), ‘Body Politics’, Freedom, Vol. 69, No. 2, February 2008 (
    4. ‘Editorial’, Mute magazine, Vol. 2, No. 7, 2008: ‘Show Invisibles? Migration, Data Work’ ( Other excellent contributions discuss aspects of the relationships between surveillance and subjection to state control, rights and visibility, informality, legality and the enforcement of work discipline, among various segments of populations here and abroad.
    5. These issues are tackled with great intelligence in Adam Curtis’ groundbreaking BBC 2 documentary series, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (2007); see my critique in ‘Paradise Mislaid’, Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 10, May 2007 (
    6. Space here prohibits consideration of otherwise relevant US titles such as A Scanner Darkly (dir. Richard Linklater, 2006; a Slackers’ version of the Philip K. Dick novel), Look (dir. Adam Rifkin, 2007; pretending to use CCTV footage), and Southland Tales (2007, dir. Richard Kelly; previously renowned for Donnie Darko). However for discussions of Strange Days (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 1995) and Fight Club (dir. David Fincher, 1999), among others, see my ‘Rose Coloured Spectacles’, Variant, 27, 2006). For comprehensive popular-literary studies of utopian and science fiction subgenres, see: Tom Moylan, Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia, Westview Press, 2000; Raffaella Baccolini & Tom Moylan (eds), Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, Routledge, 2003; and Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, Verso, 2005.
    7. One of the themes of my ‘Closed Circuit Tunnel Vision’, Variant, 29, 2007; discussing Andrea Arnold’s Glasgow-set CCTV suspense drama Red Road (2006). See also, for example, Twomey, note 3; and Henry Porter, ‘Blair’s Big Brother Legacy’, Vanity Fair, July 2006.
    8. Manu Luksch & Mukul Patel’s ‘Faceless: Chasing the Data Shadow’, Variant, 31, 2008, tells the fascinating story of its production (see also
    9. Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel; the film produced by The Matrix series’ Andy & Larry Wachowski and directed by James McTeague (2005) – see my review, ‘V Signs and Simulations’, Freedom, 67, No. 7, April 2006 (at
    10. Slavoj Zizek, 2007, (video clip at: Extras on the Children Of Men DVD (Universal Pictures, 2007) include a ‘Possibility of Hope’ featurette with contributions from Fabrizio Eva, John Gray, Naomi Klein, James Lovelock, Saskia Sassen, Tzvetan Todorov and Zizek, as well as a separate ‘Comments by Slavoj Zizek’.
    11. see, for example:; Benji Wilson, The Telegraph, 16th February 2008; Peter Tatchell, The Guardian, 3rd March 2008; James Rampton, ‘Caught Off Camera’, The Scotsman, 18th February 2008. Writer Peter Berry’s major headache in sustaining the sci-fi element was keeping ahead of the government’s actual surveillance intentions – a problem also noted by Judge Dredd comic writer Alan Grant (Sunday Herald, 27th January 2008).
    12. Meanwhile the IT providers whose promotional optimism helped translate these particular authoritarian wet-dreams into policy are now jumping ship as the bubble threatens to burst – see, for example, the Corporate Watch report ‘Corporate Identity’ (2006, and subsequent updates at; and, more recently, BAe and Accenture pulling out of ID card systems tendering (after the latter’s boss moved to the Identity & Passport Service), leaving only more shamelessly incompetent profiteers still in the frame (e.g. reported in February this year at,3800010403,39169811,00.htm).
    13. In addition to this film, corporate art commissioners Artangel’s Margate Exodus 2006 blockbuster (see included Wendy Ewald’s Towards A Promised Land photographic project, with banners showing children relocated to the area from near and far due to war, poverty, repression or family crisis; a Plague Songs music CD with performances by fashionable (so I’m told) artistes Scott Walker, Rufus Wainwright, Laurie Anderson, Cody Chesnutt, Martyn Jaques, Imogen Heap, Brian Eno and Robert Wyatt; the ‘Exodus Day’ itself on 30th September 2006, held on Margate seafront with various events and performances culminating in a spectacular bonfire consuming Anthony Gormley’s 80-odd foot tall Waste Man sculpture – built from the vicinity’s rubbish, flotsam and jetsam with the help of many local folk of diverse origins – in front of thousands of Thanet residents and visitors; with Caroline Deeds’ Waste Man documentary (broadcast on Channel 4 on 2nd December 2006) charting its production and destruction.
    14. related to but very distinct from others in European cinema’s social realist and naturalist traditions – see her interview about the making of Exodus at; and another by Stella Papamichael from 28th June 2007 at Her refreshing views on the political role of art are summarised in ‘Art Has No Real Power’, 7th May 2007 (
    15. Perhaps this reflects the gulf between a turncoat toff as beloved leader and the grimy multitude (or between privileged creator and the objects of her vision, for that matter …) which the entire enterprise of Exodus seems to want to disavow. If so, that would be completely uncharacteristic of the best of this filmmaker’s previous work, crafted from meticulous research leading to grass-roots accounts, experiences, anecdotes, characters and perspectives being central – as in the Bradford underclass trilogy Tina Goes Shopping (1999), Tina Takes A Break (2001), and the culture clash comedy Mischief Night (2006; see my appreciation in ‘A Midautumn Night’s Dream’, Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 1, January 2007 – also at Other highly original (though variously flawed) films by Penny Woolcock include The Principles of Lust and The Death of Klinghoffer (both 2003).
    16. at
    17. see the thoughtful review of Polly II by Anthony Iles (2006, available at
    18. from an interview with William Fowler in Vertigo Magazine, January 2007 ( Note that the prescience of this vision, as well as the acclaim the film has received from many quarters, have not been accompanied by the wide distribution its quality certainly deserves and therefore the enthusiastic audiences it would doubtless receive.
    19. for example, among many pathbreaking analyses, see those by Ted Allen, The Invention of the White Race, Volume Two: The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America (Verso, 1997); Sylvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Autonomedia, 2004); Peter Linebaugh, ‘Charters of Liberty in Black Face and White Face: Race, Slavery and the Commons’ (, 2005); and Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Beacon Press, 2004).
    20. ‘Civil Society, Citizenship and the Politics of the (Im)possible: Rethinking Militancy in Africa Today’ (2007), at Libcom also has a useful array of articles on Abahlali baseMjondolo (which has its own website at For the wider context here, see the excellent collection of essays: ‘Naked Cities: Struggle in the Global Slums’, Mute magazine, Vol. 2, No. 3, 2006 (; and my review of the Favela Rising documentary (covering Rio De Janeira’s Afro Reggae movement) in ‘Riodemption Songs’, Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 3, February 2007 (also at
    21. The White season, BBC 2, March 2008, included documentaries on a Bradford workingmen’s club, Polish migrants in East Anglia, the BNP in East London, and the relevance of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ provocation three decades on; the latter also a touchstone for the three-part Immigration: The Inconvenient Truth, Dispatches, Channel 4, April 2008. Covering related ground, in ‘Same Difference?’ and ‘Breaking Cover’ (Variant, Nos. 23 and 24, 2005) I hinted at some of the implications of such inherently false multicultural dichotomies in the context of prejudicial characterisations of European Asians and Muslims.
    22. in ‘Everybody Is Happy Now’, The Guardian, 17 November, 2007. Atwood herself wrote one of the many excellent post-1960s dystopias, The Handmaid’s Tale (1986; with a film version directed by Volker Schlondorff, 1990).
    23. My personal favourites being Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed (1974) and Samuel R. Delany’s response Trouble On Triton (1976) through to Marge Piercy’s Body Of Glass (1992), Kim Stanley Robinson’s California (1984-90) and Mars (1992-96) trilogies, and Octavia Butler’s Parables (1993/98).
    24. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford University Press, 1998).

    Further essays and reviews by Tom Jennings can be found at:

  • Lust Caution, directed by Ang Lee, 2007

    Sex, War by Tom Jennings.
    Film review published in Freedom, Vol. 69, No. 8, May 2008

    Lust Caution, directed by Ang Lee, 2007

    [film review published in Freedom, Vol. 69, No. 8, May 2008]

    Sex, War by Tom Jennings

    Chinese genre chameleon Lee follows gay cowboy tragedy Brokeback Mountain (2005) with another epic of transgressive desire in the espionage thriller Lust, Caution – both expanded from short stories by strong women (E. Annie Proulx, Eileen Chang) struggling against convention. Trumping the former’s contrast of the constraints of cultural rootedness and middle-class mobility in shaping sensual expression,* the doomed romance here resonates with epochal historical significance – referencing ideological, cultural, and national conflict inextricably complicating individual vicissitudes of gender role, performance and identity. Again, universal themes are conjured from highly specific contexts (the Second World War Japanese occupation of China) and characters (newcomer Tang Wei as student Wong Chia Chi erotically ensnaring for assassination purposes collaborationist secret police chief, veteran Tony Leung’s Mr Yee) through immaculate structure, design, acting and cinematography.
    So, our Hong Kong college theatre ensemble graduates from patriotic productions to plotting a strike at the puppet state in the person of its chief enforcer. As bait, Wong insinuates herself into Mrs Yee’s circle, honing the simulation of upper-class mores and inching closer to intimacy with the quarry while her most dissolute comrade initiates her in the sexual athleticism necessary to complete her task. Despite the amateurism they nearly succeed but the set-up fails, and three years later Wong is aimlessly ensconced in her impoverished Shanghai family. Yee’s glittering career is also established there, and the rest of her troupe – now under Maoist direction – make contact to continue the plan. However, the ensuing passionate affair develops a life of its own as the group’s cadre commander defers the payoff in favour of gathering further intelligence. When the crunch finally comes, Wong’s attachment leads her to warn Yee, who escapes and has the conspirators executed.

    This lustfully cautionary tale escalates from the traditional Chinese scandal of private yearnings disrupting the public cultivation of respectable decorum. Yet whereas suffocating strictures of conformism bolster the status quo, the unruly desire exemplified by sexuality and its discontents may be deployed subversively in the gaps between the minutiae of custom and surface appearance. But with seductive tension mounting towards ecstatic release, Wong’s initial motivation to play a part in liberating her social world from oppression is undone by the exquisite bodily intensity experienced in the liaison – having subsumed her entire existence in perfecting its foreplay and consummation. Lee underscores the contradictions with magnificent explicit sex scenes, convincingly depicting both protagonists’ anguished, aggressive, will-to-connect forcefully overflowing other agendas. Foregrounding the fundamental obstinacy of bodily urgency to socialisation, Lust, Caution’s melodramatic sublation of sex and death illustrates the fatal naiveté of instrumentally linking libidinal logic to conscious, rational projects – whether mundanely personal, cynically self-interested, or those their adherents imagine to be wholly collectively worthy.

    * see my comments on Brokeback Mountain in ‘Cowboys and Injuries’ (

  • The Street, by Jimmy McGovern, BBC 1, November-December 2007

    That Kitchen Sinking Feeling, by Tom Jennings

    [television review of The Street, by Jimmy McGovern, BBC 1, November-December 2007, published in Freedom, Vol. 69, No. 5, March 2008].

    That Kitchen Sinking Feeling by Tom Jennings

    Jimmy McGovern (writer of early Brookside, Cracker, Priest, The Lakes, Hillsborough, [Bloody] Sunday, etc) shuns primetime television drama as lazy cliché: “I’d never tune in to it because I know it’s going to be crap”. The Street, made for BBC 1’s 9pm slot, was instead inspired by 1950s US serial The Naked City – “behind every door, there’s a story to be told”. 2006’s first run featured A-list actors and new writers, scripts duly polished and tweaked by McGovern, tackling themes of love and its hazards. Series 2 continues the gritty Northern melodrama, focusing on individual redemption in six powerfully characterised narratives – benefits clerk impersonating dead twin (pictured); cabbie rekindling old flame; sisters divided by son’s violence; building worker’s awakening bisexuality; postie stealing middle-class mail (written by ex-Chumbawumba Alice Nutter); and a young man emerging from incarceration after a Jamie Bulger-style murder. So many tragedies on one terrace? It’s enough to give you that kitchen sinking feeling …

    Sure enough, a depressive pall suffuses variously unlikely or unbelievable plot contrivances, reinforced by hopeless, hapless white working-class responses. The dodgy decisions, minor lies and evasions, and blustering overreactions invariably make things worse – like soap opera with the ebb and flow of drudgery removed and mundane pleasures compromised. That the characters somehow find strength in themselves and their loved ones to envision a future is testament to The Street’s barbed humour, undeniably sharp scripts, and wonderful acting – such that empathy is possible at all for its fatally flawed fools. And despite favouring male perspectives, these emphasise the repercussions of botched efforts to sustain a traditional respectability otherwise abandoned on the scrapheap of cultural history. Likewise, the bitter economics of everyday life in precarious postmodern society always dominate proceedings and psyches – as in most people’s real lives – and that’s rare indeed in popular media.
    However, there are no connections between the standalone stories and their characters – beyond neighbours passing in the background – and, other than pulling together in times of adversity, scarcely a hint of collective strength. Seeing ‘ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances’ surely illuminates our own dramas – viewers from working-class backgrounds doubtless repeatedly glimpsing their own reflections here – but extraordinary ways of coping with ordinary hardship, in imaginative, collective ways that ring true, might transcend the backward-looking, objectifying, guilt-tripping, breast-beating that UK social realism is regrettably renowned for. McGovern himself always stresses “there’s no problem with working-class communities that money wouldn’t solve”, but here the protagonists are undoubtedly their own worst enemies. Nonetheless, from conception in solidarity and humility to execution with such immense warmth and storytelling craft, The Street triumphantly bucks trivial TV trends – just as its creator intended.

  • The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke (2007)

    CSI: The Big Sleazy,
    by Tom Jennings
    [essay / book review published in Variant, No. 31, March 2008]
    CSI: The Big Sleazy by Tom Jennings

    [essay / book review published in Variant, No. 31, March 2008]

    James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown (Orion Books, 2007) is the 16th and most successful novel so far in a widely-acclaimed hardboiled crime series featuring Dave Robicheaux – a multiply flawed and emotionally damaged, world-weary but basically decent Sheriff’s Deputy in New Iberia, 125 miles down the Louisiana coast from New Orleans. The book opens with this Vietnam veteran cursed with a recurring dream of that carnage: “Their lives are taken incrementally – by flying shrapnel, by liquid flame on their skin, and by drowning in a river. In effect, they are forced to die three times. A medieval torturer could not have devised a more diabolic fate” (p.2). On waking, he reminds himself that,

    “the past is a decaying memory and that I do not have to relive and empower it unless I choose to do so. As a recovering drunk, I know I cannot allow myself the luxury of resenting my government for lying to a whole generation of young men and women who believed they were serving a noble cause … When I go back to sleep, I once again tell myself I will never again have to witness the wide-scale suffering of innocent civilians, nor the betrayal and abandonment of our countrymen when they need us most.
    But that was before Katrina. That was before a storm with greater impact than the bomb blast that struck Hiroshima peeled the face off southern Louisiana. That was before one of the most beautiful cities in the Western hemisphere was killed three times, and not just by the forces of nature” (p.2).

    As this excerpt promises, there is much more in this story than typical noir thriller fare. The author’s abiding concern with the struggles of the powerless to handle the larger forces, violence and depravity that confront them while retaining some semblance of dignity and honour has consistently been deployed over five decades to mull over America’s conflicts of race, class, and good and evil, here seen through the deeply ambivalent prism of Cajun working-class masculinity contextualised squarely in the genre traditions handed down through Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The first major work of popular fiction dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina [1], which devastated New Orleans on 29th August 2005, Blowdown demonstrates both the possibilities and problems of attempting to tell the truth through drama – from a writer who does “not trust people who seek authority and control over other people” [2] aiming to force Americans “into an introspection that … will lead people from dismay to anger” at a continuing tragedy which, he asserts, signposts a dismal likely future for the whole country [3]. And, we might add, for the globe, as corporate governance, graft and greed negotiate Nero’s course through environmental ruin …

    A Chronicle of Death Foretold

    Citing literary inspirations like Faulkner, Hemingway, Orwell and Tennessee Williams, Burke’s prose has always been noted for its emotive supercharge, verging oftentimes on delirium; but also for an elegaic, lyrical elegance in characterising his beloved native Gulf coast, where he still lives for part of the year. These attributes dovetail as Robicheaux bears witness to Katrina: before its landfall, in realist dread watching the telly; afterwards in disbelief, with shades of Blake, Bosch, and Ballard, as he’s seconded to an overwhelmed New Orleans Police Department many of whose personnel went AWOL and/or rogue. In effect, he concludes, “The entire city, within one night, had been reduced to the technological level of the Middle Ages” (p.34). Yet, for days before the hurricane struck, “the governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco, has been pleading for help to anyone who will listen. A state emergency official in Metaire has become emotionally undone during a CNN interview … He states unequivocally that sixty-two thousand people will die if the storm maintains its current category 5 strength and hits New Orleans head-on” (p.23).
    This scale of disaster indeed transpired, with Robicheaux summarising the geological backstory:

    “a tidal surge … can turn a levee system into serpentine lines of black sand or level a city, particularly when the city has no natural barriers. The barrier islands off the Louisiana coast have long ago eroded away or been dredged up and heaped on barges and sold for shale parking lots. The petrochemical companies have cut roughly ten thousand miles of channels through the wetlands, allowing saline intrusion to poison and kill freshwater marsh areas from Plaquemines Parish to Sabine Pass. The levees along the Mississippi River shotgun hundreds of tons of mud over the edge of the continental shelf, preventing it from flowing westward along the coastline, where it is needed the most. Louisiana’s wetlands continue to disappear at a rate of forty-seven square miles a year” (p. 28).

    Unsurprisingly then,

    “The levees burst because they were structurally weak and had only a marginal chance of surviving a category 3 storm, much less one of category 5 strength. Every state emergency official knew this. The Army Corps of Engineers knew this. The National Hurricance Center in Miami knew this.
    But apparently the United States Congress and the current administration in Washington, D.C., did not, since they had dramatically cut funding for repair of the levee system only months earlier” (p.32).

    Charged with investigating the murders of alleged looters, Robicheaux and fellow officers navigate the institutional vacuum, infrastructural wreckage and social chaos of the stricken city, surveying victims and survivors and striving to differentiate predators from prey among the latter. Many of those unable to leave, especially from the Ninth Ward, took refuge in the Superdome and Convention Center: “The thousands of people who had sought shelter there had been told to bring their own food for five days. Many of them were from the projects or the poorest neighbourhoods in the city and did not own automobiles and had little money or food at the end of the month. Many of them had brought elderly and sick people with them – diabetics, paraplegics, Alzheimer’s patients, and people in need of kidney dialysis” (p.35). Elsewhere:

    “From a boat or any other elevated position, as far as the eye could see, New Orleans looked like a Caribbean city that had collapsed beneath the waves … The linear structure of a neighbourhood could be recognized only by the green smudge of yard trees that cut the waterline and row upon row of rooftops dotted with people who perched on sloped shingles that scalded their hands.
    The smell was like none I ever experienced. The water was chocolate-brown, the surface glistening with a blue-green sheen of oil and industrial chemicals. Raw feces and used toilet paper issued from broken sewer lines. The gray, throat-gagging odor of decomposition permeated not only the air but everything we touched. The bodies of dead animals, including deer, rolled in the wake of our rescue boats. And so did those of human beings, sometimes just a shoulder or an arm or the back of a head, suddenly surfacing, then sinking under the froth.
    They drowned in attics and on the second floors of their houses. They drowned along the edges of Highway 23 when they tried to drive out of Plaquemines Parish. They drowned in retirement homes and in trees and on car tops while they waved frantically at helicopters flying overhead. They died in hospitals and nursing homes of dehydration and heat exhaustion, and they died because an attending nurse could not continue to operate a hand ventilator for hours upon hours without rest” (p.37).

    Then a little later, a preliminary cognitive mapping:

    “It wasn’t the individual destruction of the homes in the Lower Ninth Ward that seemed unreal. It was the disconnection of them from their environment that was hard for the eye to accept. They had been lifted from their foundations, twisted from the plumbing that held them to the ground, and redeposited upside down or piled against one another as though they had been dropped from the sky … The insides of all of them were black-green with sludge and mold, their exteriors spray-painted with code numbers to indicate they had already been searched for bodies.
    But every day more bodies were discovered … Feral dogs prowled the wreckage and so did the few people who were being allowed back into their neighbourhoods” (p.199).

    These and countless other vignettes throughout the novel are as powerful and evocative in their own way as Spike Lee’s heartbreaking visual testament, When The Levees Broke, and Greg MacGillivray’s meticulous documentary detailing the ecological significance, Hurricane On The Bayou (both 2006). However, the conventions of crime fiction offer much greater potential for situating such events in a narrative with full cultural, historical and political texture and complexity – most crucially, from perspectives towards the bottom of the social hierarchy rather than according to the agendas of the Great and the Good; Burke himself seeing the genre as “having replaced the sociological novel. We know a society not by its symbols but by its cultural rejects and failures” [4]. So, progressively immersed in escalating webs of malice, misdeeds and moral compromises spun long before and in Katrina’s aftermath, Blowdown’s unruly welter of unreliable characters tell variegated tales as revealing in their conceits, discrepancies, and silences as in their manifest content.

    The Big Sleep of Reasons

    Initial scenes mingling mayhem, disorder, suffering, selfless heroism, and cynical opportunism utterly confuse the New Iberia contingent’s senses as they descend into the flooded city, reflected in their contradictory attributions of responsibility for what they see. First, as putative public servants charged with protecting the populace, Robicheaux gives credit where most obviously due – “The United States Coastguard flew nonstop … They rescued more than thirty-three thousand souls” (p.38) – though soon undercut by his sidekick Clete Purcel’s caustic contrast with the Supreme Commander’s own aerial display: “Did you see that big plane that flew over? … It was Air Force One. After three days the Shrubster did a flyover. Gee, I feel better now” (p.41). The identification of honourable intent is similarly frustrated by reality on the ground for traumatised survivors and erstwhile saviours alike, with praise for rescue agencies unravelling in recrimination against officialdom, and the ethical superiority of law enforcers over criminals and vigilantes confounded by pervasive inept, corrupt, and lethal practice. Still, incidents of the latter tend to be described on reflex as ‘rumour’, with police reports, however hyperbolic or prejudicial, related as deadpan fact in Robicheaux’s breathless accounts:

    “Looters were hitting pharmacies and liquor and jewellery stores first, then working their way down the buffet table. A rogue group of NOPD cops had actually set up a thieves headquarters on the tenth floor of a downtown hotel, storing their loot in the rooms, terrorizing the management, and threatening to kill a reporter who tried to question them. New Orleans cops also drove off with automobiles from the Cadillac agency. Gangbangers had converged on the Garden District and were having a Visigoth holiday, burning homes built before the Civil War, carrying away whatever wasn’t bolted down.
    Evacuees in the Superdome and Convention Center tried to walk across the bridge into Jefferson Parish. Most of these people were black, some carrying children in their arms, all of them exhausted, hungry, and dehydrated. They were met by armed police officers who fired shotguns over their heads and allowed none of them to leave Orleans Parish … An NOPD cop shot a black man with a twelve-gauge through the glass window of his cruiser in front of the Convention Center while hundreds of people watched … Emergency personnel in rescue boats became afraid of the very people they were supposed to save. Some people airflifted out by the Coast Guard in the Lower Nine said the gunfire was a desperate attempt to signal the boat crews” (pp.38-9).

    And the dangerous felony of desperate foraging by the starving sits awkwardly with wanton and organised neglect and execution:

    “I saw people eating from plastic packages of mustard and ketchup they had looted from a cafe, dividing what they had amongst themselves … Some NOPD cops said the personnel at Orleans Parish Prison had blown town and left the inmates to drown. Others said a downtown mob rushed a command center, thinking food and water were being distributed. A deputy panicked and began firing an automatic weapon into the night sky, quickly adding to the widespread conviction that cops were arbitrarily killing innocent people … We heard rumors that teams of elite troops … were taking out snipers under a black flag” (p.44).

    Given minimal time to make sense of his crime scene data, Robicheaux’s general conclusion resembles that famously reached by hip-hop star Kanye West [5], leaving an irksome FBI agent in no doubt about the greater scheme of things: “Hundreds if not thousands of New Orleans residents drowned who didn’t have to. I suspect that’s because some of the guys in Washington you work for couldn’t care less” (p.171). But as the specific murder case he pursues sinks into a moral quagmire linking all social strata – implicating upstanding insurance men, industrialists and clergy alongside petty thieves, Mob bosses, rapists, lone psychopaths and drug dealers – his own sanity, integrity and family come under mortal threat, triggering increasingly excessive violence to keep internal and external demons at bay. Along the way he reflects on the overarching structures and processes that both precipitate and thrive on the greater and lesser tragedies at hand:

    “The images I had seen during the seven-day period immediately after the storm would never leave me. Nor could I afford the anger they engendered in me. Nor did I wish to deal with the latent racism in our culture that was already beginning to rear its head. According to the Washington Post, a state legislator had just told a group of lobbyists in Baton Rouge, ‘We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did’.” (p.83) [6].

    By the time Hurricane Rita hit the Gulf coast three weeks afterwards, occasioning further mass evacuations,

    “The original sympathy for the evacuees from New Orleans was incurring a strange transformation. Right-wing talk shows abounded with callers viscerally enraged at the fact that evacuees were receiving a onetime two-thousand-dollar payment to help them buy food and find lodging. The old southern nemesis was back, naked and raw and dripping – absolute hatred for the poorest of the poor … [while a] tidal wave of salt water, mud, dead fish, oil sludge, and organic debris literally effaced the southern rim of Louisiana” (pp.115-116).

    And as for the larger reconstruction:

    “Clete had said that after Katrina he had heard the sounds of little piggy feet clattering to the trough. I think his image was kind. I think the reality was far worse. The players were much bigger than the homegrown parasites that have sucked the life out of Louisiana for generations. The new bunch was educated and groomed and had global experience in avarice and venality … Staggering sums of money were given to insider corporations who subcontracted the jobs to small outfits that used only nonunion labor … It became obvious right after Katrina that the destruction of New Orleans was an ongoing national tragedy and probably an American watershed in the history of political cynicism” (p.148).

    As Robicheaux judges later: “The job ahead was Herculean and it was compounded by a level of corporate theft and governmental incompetence and cynicism that probably has no equal outside the Third World. I wasn’t sure New Orleans had a future” (p.196) [7]. But it certainly has a long, dishonourable past, and Burke excels in excavating the sins of the fathers while retaining a nostalgic faith in potential redemption (with innocence scarcely realistic) in the present.

    Crimes and Punishments

    As Blowdown’s tortuous, labyrinthine plot proceeds, unlikely leads overlap and loose ends abound. Exasperated at every turn by the refusal of suspects, victims and informants to co-operate with (or even acknowledge) his knight’s errand, Robicheaux explains his embattled bafflement in terms of the simplistic worldviews of others – thus disavowing the contradictions and inadequacies of his own position as lone crusader for truth and justice floundering in the forces of darkness; maintaining self-belief via quintessential petit-bourgeois resentment:

    “As Americans we are a peculiar breed. We believe in law and order, but we also believe that real crimes are committed by a separate class of people, one that has nothing to do with our own lives or the world of reasonable behaviour and mutual respect to which we belong. As a consequence, many people, particularly in higher income brackets, think of police officers as suburban maintenance personnel who should be treated politely but whose social importance is one cut above their gardeners.
    Ever watch reality cop shows? … What conclusion does the viewer arrive at? Crimes are committed by shirtless pukes. Slumlords and politicians on a pad get no play” (pp.152-3).

    These manic manoeuvres of splitting, denial and projection serve to fully implicate the respectable fractions of society colluding in processes which generate and nourish patterns of foul play, while insulating the untarnished detached self from both the seething mass of ignorance below and venal dissolution above. Though a wholly artificial balance between culpability and blamelessness, this facilitates the pragmatic separation of investigative wheat from chaff, but sedimented as belief-system has a seductive, self-serving clarity requiring Herculean physical and emotional efforts to sustain when the going gets tough – so extreme, indeed, as to virtually obliterate the boundaries between good and bad guys all over again. Nevertheless, an immediate payoff is a clearsighted appreciation of the thoroughgoing dependence of business as usual on class- and race-based contempt and domination in mainstream culture and its legitimising discourses.
    History then resolves into a litany of criminal enterprise, with the fallout from Katrina entirely in keeping:

    “In Louisiana, as in the rest of the South, the issue was always power. Wealth did not buy it. Wealth came with it. Televangelist preachers and fundamentalist churches sold magic as a way of acquiring it. The measure of one’s success was the degree to which he could exploit his fellow man or reward his friends or punish his enemies … In our state’s history, a demagogue with holes in his shoes forced Standard Oil to kiss his ring” (p.290).

    The latter refers to populist Senator Huey P. Long, gifting, we are told [8], the state to the Costello crime family in the 1930s, who duly subcontracted all vice operations in New Orleans to a local Mafia outfit. The police and Mob coexisted comfortably (as elsewhere), running the French Quarter tourist area of the city as a joint franchise where, irrespective of legal niceties, nothing was allowed to interfere with the pleasure business – a “cultural symbiosis” responsible for the locals’ dubbing the city ‘The Great Whore of Babylon’ and ‘The Big Easy’ as well as Purcel and Robicheaux’s favoured ‘The Big Sleazy’; which, however, progressively broke down after crack cocaine flooded the city in the 1980s before finally drowning in August 2005.

    This socio-economic fabric, however, was always co-constituted and crosscut with the legacies of racial segregation, where, in Robicheaux’s otherwise idealised post-Depression youth,

    “The majority of people were poor, and for generations the oligarchy that ruled the state exerted every effort to ensure they stayed that way. The Negro was the scapegoat for our problems, the trade unions the agents of northern troublemakers. With the coming of integration every demagogue in the state could not wait to stoke up the fires of racial fear and hatred. Many of their consitituents rose to the occasion” (p. 187) [9].
    Correspondingly, Burke himself is at pains to emphasise that, “Within New Orleans’ city limits, the population is 70% black. These are mainly hard-working, blue-collar people who have endured every form of adversity over many generations. But another element is … heavily armed and morally insane. These are people who will rob the victim, then arbitrarily kill him out of sheer meanness” [10]. Tellingly, this stark dichotomising of a rich, complex Creole culture into sets of Manichean opposites produces one asymmetry – poor whites led astray by external forces; poor Blacks generating monsters from within – which, though never explicitly acknowledged, echoes the official bad faith the author excoriates in responses to Katrina; yet its ramifications dominate his novel’s frantic denouement.Remember, the police perspective routinely focused on Black criminality as the major problem after the storm hit, even though the bulk of supposedly factual media horror-stories were officially admitted to represent unsubstantiated paranoia. Slavoj Zizek has perceptively remarked that, here, “The official … discourse is accompanied and sustained by a whole nest of obscene, brutal racist and sexist fantasies, which can only be admitted in a censored form” [11] – that is, masquerading as unfortunate truth. For all his enlightened liberal humanism, procedural protocols govern Robicheaux’s working life too, and his default template for understanding and dealing with the black underclass presumes the same lowest common denominator – albeit uneasily displaced onto and attributed to his disreputable partner in crime-fighting:

    “For Clete, Bertrand Melancon seemed to personify what he hated most in the clientele he dealt with on a daily basis. They were raised by their grandmothers and didn’t have a clue who their fathers were. They … thought of sexual roles in terms of prey or predator. They lied instinctively, even when there was no reason to. Trying to find a handle on them was impossible. They were inured to insult, indifferent to their own fate, and devoid of guilt or shame. What bothered Clete most about them was his belief that anyone from their background would probably turn out the same” (p.76).

    Nevertheless Purcel’s job is to locate bail fugitives, and in “any American slum, two enterprises are never torched by urban rioters: the funeral home and the bondsman’s office … [whose] huge clientele of miscreants was sycophantic by nature and always trying to curry favor from those who had control over their lives” (p.72).

    The conflicting characterisations here clearly signal the ‘moral insanity’ of traditional police culture, which dehumanises in advance those attracting its gaze, backed with baleful institutional clout obliging its targets to shape their conduct accordingly. But even choosing respectable conformism as accommodation to systemic injustice generates troubling grey areas – witness erstwhile law-abiding members of the Black community obstinately shielding less savoury relatives or neighbours from the official attention they know as malevolent. Unable to assimilate this phenomenon, Robicheaux instead retreats to an Oakland Baptist minister’s retrograde assertion that the 1960s Black “Panthers did not respect either the church or the traditional ethos of the family” (p.296), and therefore their appeal would not last. This dubious thesis was destined to remain untested, however. For its audacity in flouting sterotypes and collectively eschewing passivity, 1970s Black radicalism was crushed by a merciless police and military onslaught courtesy of the government’s COINTELPRO conspiracy.
    To Gary Younge, in a real-life setting far stranger than fiction, Blowdown’s “search for black rapists and looters and their white assailants is a literary version of wasting police time” – where, although “they do not act as archetypes … the characters must operate within the narrow confines of racial cliché” [12]. Unfortunately – possibly misled by lofty disdain for its artistic merits – Younge doesn’t realise that Burke is specifically drawing attention to the problems this causes rather than merely reproducing them. That’s why Robicheaux’s favourite passage from Hemingway (in Death in the Afternoon) suggests “that the world’s ills could be corrected by a three-day open season on people. Less heartening is his addendum that the first group he would wipe out would be police officers everywhere” (p.186). Robicheaux thus “has a classic flaw: hubris. The tragic hero takes a fall because of pride … When Dave acts in a violent fashion it’s almost always in the defense of another. But he knows violence is the last resort of an intelligent person and the first resort of a primitive person, and that everyone is diminished by it, usually the perpetrator the most” [13]. Acting-out violent fantasy, furthermore, has always been the stock in trade of the hardboiled detective.

    The Unsound and the Fury

    Private dicks began life as struggling entrepreneurs from blue-collar backgrounds in the utterly corrupt public miasma of the modern city. Unlike the detached aristocratic geniuses previously populating detective fiction, the hardboiled protagonist mucks in and deliberately intensifies the disorder he finds in the hope of shaking out clues. But to survive he has to be as tough and adeptly schooled as his adversaries in the evil they do – the thoroughgoing imbrication of the hero in the conduct for which he seeks to extract accounting or achieve resolution being the constitutive dilemma of hardboiled genres [14]. Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and their direct descendants thus handle their contradictory positions with ironic isolation from the decadence around them, maintaining a strict regime of masculinity to bolster immunity from the dangerous seductions of femme fatales [15] – a spartan solipsism inevitably eroded, however, with the emerging social structure of consumer capitalism, which offers the seeking of pleasures and blurring of patriarchal boundaries to ordinary folk as well as the idle rich.
    Hence new generations of hardnosed investigators had to relax their masculinist certainties and rigid ego structures in order to convince their clients of professional competence (and their readers, of contemporary relevance). Yet this neo-noir worldliness and flexibility now makes it far harder to resist sinking into the moral degeneracy that they must be so intimate with to contest. As Fred Pfeil shows, the paradoxical outcome is that greater attentiveness to emotional depth and complexity necessitates ever more hysterical levels of violence to differentiate the honourably tough but vulnerable detective from the villain [16]. And whereas for most representatives of the genre, this

    “sensitivity is both unproblematically positive and narcissistically self-regarding, Robicheaux’s is openly riven by ambivalence, troubled by complicit desires and doubts, and obsessed with its old, unhealable wounds … explicitly defined by its connective affiliations to and with a continuum of others, from the various white male monsters whose terrible appetites he finds within himself, to the innocent vulnerability of those morally pure women, children, and Blacks he saves and protects” [17].

    His creator specifies that “Dave’s greatest anger is over the loss of the Cajun culture into which he was born. He’s never been able to accept the fact that it’s gone and won’t be coming back” [18]. His nostalgic yearning in defence against this fury is then set against fantasies of the purity and unconditional love offered by the isolated nuclear family, but in both cases the reality is infected with exactly the same social diseases and questionable motives that he prefers only to register in those marked irredeemably criminal. Robicheaux originates in a dysfunctional family with a capricious and cruel father and absent promiscuous mother, substituting his disappointment at a broken home with valorisation of the Cajun working class that at least had clear-cut standards to measure its failure. Similarly he idealises his intimate relationships but compulsively endangers them – his saintly second wife was slaughtered by thugs he was pursuing, and in Blowdown his third wife (an ex-nun) and adopted daughter very nearly suffer the same fate. The grotesque white psychopath who poses this most serious threat to Robicheaux (as in most of his novels) then obviously represents an incarnation of the alter-ego that he could so easily have become.
    Burke’s evident awareness of all of these pathological dynamics is tempered by his focus on the overarching theme of redemption – sadly understood as an individual spiritual matter rather than a question of social and political dialectic, and therefore verging on vanity as well as pridefulness, where the conquering hero flatters himself on his goodness (and seeks regular reassurance to that effect from his nearest and dearest). Still, the author’s genre craftsmanship is such that the story’s resolution succeeds in tying all the narrative strands together, including Robicheaux’s encouragement (as part of his faltering attempt to transcend the racist mythology he grew up with) of the Black fugitive’s desire to atone for his many sins. Nevertheless, the scale of the central character’s hysterical propensities and the hyperbolic violence he has to be willing to indulge in to end up ‘on the side of the angels’ heralds the self-destructive nature of a quest condemned to endlessly repeat itself so long as collective remedies remain out of reach … In which case, as an allegory of the contortions of mainstream America avoiding recognition of its deep intrinsic culpability in the tragedy of New Orleans, perhaps The Tin Roof Blowdown is a minor masterpiece after all.


    1. along with the title story – first appearing in Esquire in March 2006 (and so popular that the magazine reinstated regular short fiction features) – of Burke’s collection Jesus Out To Sea. These have been swiftly followed by several other notable novels in diverse genres, as well as a crude, action-based, Miami Vice-style cop series (K-Ville) from Fox TV.
    2. from an interview with Martha Woodroof on US National Public Radio, July 30, 2007 ( In an interview with Skylar Browning, ‘No Regrets’, Missoula Independent Weekly, February 8, 2006 (, he fleshes out this conviction: “George Orwell put it much better than I. He said, ‘A writer writes in order to correct history, to set the record straight.’ By that he meant it’s an obsession. You feel that somehow — and it’s a vanity, of course — that inside you, you have trapped a perfect picture of truth, and you feel compelled every minute of the day to convey it to someone else”. More specifically, “We’ve given over the country to the worst people in it … In part, it’s because we’ve forgotten the importance of working people. … We’ve given up the high road to the people who have hijacked Christianity … We’ve allowed people who have no compassion at all for the working classes to pretend successfully that it is they who have Joe Bob and Bubba and Betty Sue’s interests at heart … Anyone who believes that the people running this country today care about the interests of working people has a serious thinking disorder”.
    3. quotation from Burke’s Los Angeles Times op-ed, ‘A City of Saints and Sancho Panza’, September, 2005 ( See also interview with Jeff Baker, ‘From Montana’s Heartland: Redemption for New Orleans’, The Oregonian, August 26, 2007 (
    4. interview with Jeffrey Trachtenberg, Wall Street Journal ( Also, no doubt, audiences for detective stories are rather different from those for current affairs programming, however worthy – see Ken Worpole, Dockers and Detectives: Popular Reading, Popular Writing, Verso 1983, for a pathbreaking account of the class connotations of popular fiction.
    5. “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people”, during NBC’s Concert for Hurricane Relief, September 2, 2005, after other unscripted remarks like: “I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it [the media] says, ‘they’re looting’. You see a white family, it says, ‘they’re looking for food’. And, you know, it’s been five days [waiting for federal help] because most of the people are black”.
    6. And in his first town hall meeting after Katrina, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin invited an evangelist pastor to speak first, who called it a “purging and cleansing” of the city – Nagin himself later suggesting that God had taken revenge on America for the Iraq war. Despite Burke’s disgust here, though, his Catholicism also attracts him (and therefore Robicheaux) to equally ecclesiastical imagery; for example: “But the damage in New Orleans was of a kind we associate with apocalyptical images from the Bible” (p.195). For more on such theodicy and mainstream and crackpot godbothering in general, as well as cogent analyses of political and media treatments of the crisis, see Michael Eric Dyson, Come Hell Or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster, Basic Civitas Books, 2006 – who also cites the only significant remaining records of life in the drowned zones as being music videos by Southern rappers (and for further reference to their responses to Katrina, see my ‘Rebel Poets Reloaded’, Variant 30, 2007).
    7. Robicheaux sees firsthand, and duly notes, the sundry paltry and woefully belated grassroots fruits of Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA; run by Bush crony Michael Brown with no experience in this, or any relevant, field) activity; i.e. granting enormous contracts to notoriously vicious, corrupt corporations like Blackwater, resulting in minimal resources trickling down to relief recipients. Given Blackwater’s record in Iraq, the Third World parallel is doubly ironic even while exposing the general logic of ‘private finance initiatives’.
    8. for example: Blowdown, pp.140-1; and ‘A City of Saints and Sancho Panza’, L.A. Times (see note 3).
    9. including very nearly electing ex-KKK Nazi David Duke as state Governor as recently as 1991. For the best review of Blowdown I’ve read anchored in New Orleans nuance, see Robert Maxwell, ‘After the Storm: James Lee Burke Answers Katrina’s Wrath with His Own’, Mobile Press-Register (Alabama), August 5, 2007 (
    10. L.A. Times, note 3.11. in ‘The Subject Supposed to Loot and Rape: Reality and Fantasy in New Orleans’, In These Times, 20 October, 2005; invoking a parallel with anti-semitism in Nazi Germany where, quite irrespective of any actual misdeeds, “the causes of all social antagonisms were projected onto the ‘Jew’ – an object of perverted love-hatred, a spectral figure of mixed fascination and disgust”.
    12. ‘After the Storm’, The Guardian, December 1, 2007.
    13. Burke, in Trachtenberg, Wall Street Journal, note 4.
    14. see, for example, John Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture, Chicago University Press, 1976; David Geherin, The American Private Eye: The Image in Fiction, New York, Vintage, 1985; Yvonne Tasker, Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema, Routledge, 1993.
    15. see Frank Krutnik, In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity, Routledge, 1991; and various contributions to Joan Copjec (ed.), Shades of Noir, Verso, 1993.
    16. in ‘Soft Boiled Dicks’, White Guys: Studies in Postmodern Domination and Difference, Verso, 1995.
    17. ‘Soft Boiled Dicks’, pp.116-7. Burke’s foregrounding of Robicheaux’s psychic conflicts also contrasts most sharply with the fashionable serial killer subgenre – for example, the Hannibal Lecter series, where class hatred is mystified and dispersed into outlandishly supernatural empathetic connections between detectives, murderers and amoral upper-class incarnations of the Devil.
    18. in Trachtenberg, Wall Street Journal, note 4.

  • Brokeback Mountain, dir. Ang Lee, 2005

    Cowboys and Injuries by Tom Jennings [notes from correspondence, January 2006]
    Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee, 2005

    Cowboys and Injuries [notes from correspondence, January 2006]

    Of course you’re right, the story of the two lead characters in Brokeback Mountain is the classic narrative of doomed love in a hostile society, and it accomplished the romantic tragedy angle perfectly – I reckon Ang Lee is one of the best directors around for translating literature to screen without trivialising or diminishing it (and he’s worked in nearly every genre too). I’ve not read the Proulx story, but I’d imagine he got the wider social complications and repercussions spot on from her too. Having said that, the differences from age-old mythic romance may be as interesting as the similarities.
    That’s partly why the ‘gay cowboy’ thing is a facile label, to be sure, but more besides. Clearly there was no way the main sexual relationship wasn’t going to be central to the tabloid reception; so they might as well make a merit of it, I suppose. More to the point, the film (though probably not the written story) is full of visual and stylistic allusions to classic cowboy movies and characters; but where the naïve individualistic heroism of your average John Wayne is thoroughly and openly demystified – as both personally disastrous and inevitably conforming to the barbarity of so-called civilisation (i.e. not just genocide and slavery, but sundry contemporary forms of oppression too). This is something very rare in modern Hollywood blockbusters directly referencing the Western genre – the most obvious other recent example I can think of in this respect is Clint Eastwood’s revisionist The Unforgiven; but here the homoeroticism is conventionally submerged beneath Freudian father-son masculinity dynamics where women are mere cyphers (note, conversely, Lee’s sophisticated dramatisations of gender anxiety in many genres: e.g. The Wedding Banquet, 1993; Eat Drink Man Woman, 1994; Sense and Sensibility, 1995; The Ice Storm, 1997; Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, 2000; even Hulk, 2003 …).

    However, this precisely wasn’t a Western, since the whole premise of cowboy films is that the wilderness is beyond the limits of civilisation, where dangerous savages (usually feminised too, such as Native Americans) are tamed (usually annihilated) by male bonding macho pioneers who have to suppress or displace their feelings for each other in order to ‘get the job done’. Whereas the Brokeback wilderness is already fully colonised by political economy (disrupted only by remnants of barbarism like coyotes and bears). So it is a precarious sanctuary inside civilisation and the only place within which the free play of unfettered desire could express itself – albeit temporarily (think of discourses of tourism; except on Brokeback the protagonsists were dirt poor, although the Mexican ladyboys later on did yield to commodity relations) .
    So the parallel with the Western then continues in the characters’ divergent trajectories. The rooted class realities reflected in Heath Ledger’s character’s attitudes and environment suppress development and constrain his options in ways he is (fleetingly) aware of and fatalistic about – although in many minor ways throughout he resists merely reproducing the patriarchal patterns that formed him (though these small acts of resistance typically neither succeed nor afford anyone much consolation). Whereas Jake Gyllenhaal’s more mobile drifter takes the aspirational route (in Westerns, this would mean lackeying for whoever was in power; here – i.e. modern ‘Western’ society – bourgeois social and economic advancement concealing his ‘corruption’), which requires the deliberate, selfish manipulation of those around him and the disavowal of responsibility for the consequences both for them and him, resulting in his eventual ‘lynching’ (in a manner similar, for example, to the traditional fates of transgressive, sexualised women or uppity lower castes).
    Most of all, for me, the way the personalities, behaviour and interactions of the main characters were shown to affect and mingle in the lives of each other, their families and others rang very true – and the best cinema can achieve this level of subtlety without having to be put into words (whereas in writing there’s no choice). I’d have liked to have seen more from the perspectives of the wives, and more of the social ripples further out. But that’s just quibbling really. As for whether mainstream audiences go beyond stereotypical responses, at any level – well, maybe they do; but they’re on their own, since none of the critics did. As per ..

  • Sicko, directed by Michael Moore, 2007

    Body Politics by Tom Jennings – film review of Sicko, directed by Michael Moore, published in Freedom, Vol. 69, No. 2, February 2008

    Body Politics by Tom Jennings,
    Freedom, Vol. 69, No. 2, February 2008]

    The most effective and affecting sequences in this documentary about the US healthcare (dis-)service – where even middle-class people bankrupt themselves paying for treatment – show ordinary Americans recounting abject experiences at the hands of callous insurance companies and profiteering medical institutions. Michael Moore wisely holds ego in abeyance whereupon his subjects’ intelligence and resilience in the face of personal tragedy make his arguments for socialised medicine for him. As in previous films like Roger & Me, Bowling For Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, this grass-roots approach to delineating his themes pays dividends because the subsequent commonsense basis for political debate undercuts the high-minded pomposity and venal dishonesty of the Great and Good bolstering the greed of their elite constituencies in the name of freedom.
    Having established sympathy for the victims of such a corrupt and malicious system without rendering them passive, Moore wastes no time detailing, with great satirical flourish, the deliberate design and assiduous maintenance of this appalling state of affairs by successive generations of Republicans and Democrats from Nixon to Bush. The archival detective work again produces gems, such as Tricky Dicky in the 1971 White House Tapes rubberstamping the insurance sector’s rip-off masterminded by John Erlichman. The clincher? “All the incentives run the right way: the less care they give … the more money they make”. Then there’s Reagan telling his public that a proper national service was not only against their interests, but ‘anti-American’ to boot. Most tellingly, the roster of corporate lickspittles includes both Clintons – Bill’s healthcare reform ticket abandoned upon becoming president, and Hilary’s commitment to universal provision doubtful given her lobby funding by Big Pharma.

    Of course, the populist demagogue persona inevitably surfaces at some point, and in Sicko it arrives in spades. Freed from demands of electoral name-calling, we instead get sickening paeans to Castro’s Cuba and Tony Benn proclaiming that killing the NHS would prompt revolution here, alongside similarly ridiculously idealised descriptions of the Canadian and French systems – with attention to neither the fatal inadequacies of their massive hierarchical bureaucracies nor the present insidious drip of privatisation by the back door. The paradox once again is that success as a media brand requires sensational self-aggrandisement, with corresponding cynical levels of manipulation both of the audience and the material to guarantee access to the big screen. The result – here fetishising big government – is as frustrating as ever: at least airing so many dimensions of the problem, but obstinately oblivious to the obvious necessity of real, not token, people power if it’s ever to be solved.

  • Britz, directed by Peter Kosminsky, Channel 4, October/November 2007

    A Bipolar Exposition by Tom Jennings – television review of Britz, directed by Peter Kosminsky, published in Freedom, Vol. 69, No. 2, February 2008

    A Bipolar Exposition by Tom Jennings

    Juggling simplistic stereotypes, Channel 4’s Britz illuminates neither the attitudes of UK Muslims nor the motivations of homegrown jihadists, concludes Tom Jennings

    Peter Kosminsky’s television docudramas have tackled themes such as the Falklands War, child abuse and North of Ireland policy; recently criticising UN peacekeeping in Bosnia (Warriors, 1999), the creation of New Labour (The Project, 2002), and the hounding of Dr David Kelly over Saddam’s WMDs (The Government Inspector, 2005). Now with Britz (Channel 4, October 31st/November 1st) he abandons ‘faction’ (combining fictional speculation with supposedly factual material) altogether, seeking to explain why the 7 July 2005 London bombers, “second-generation Pakistani-Muslim Britons … blew themselves to bits, taking with them as many of their fellow citizens as they could”. Aiming to flesh out the precursors of extreme choices and facilitate understanding how intelligent and caring individuals come to commit horrific acts, consecutive episodes depict the experiences and life choices of two closely-linked characters, which result in vastly divergent trajectories fatefully colliding in a tragic denouement.
    Sohail (Riz Ahmed) and his sister Nasima (Manjinder Virk) from Bradford are studying law and medicine respectively and, fully integrated into student life, tolerate their parents’ traditionalism without applying it to themselves. He sneers at peers taking prayers seriously, and to fulfil what he sees as a debt of honour to Britain (plus envisaging an exciting career), enlists with MI5 to combat terrorism – with his commitment standfast despite falling foul of anti-terror policing and taking part in persecution and torture. Naz, conversely, responds deeply to such phenomena and is politically active but, frustrated with liberal protest and traumatised by the suicide of a friend unjustly placed under a Control Order, opts to train for armed jihad. Both detach themselves entirely from friends and family in following their secret courses – but (despite superb acting) we never learn why on earth they embarked on them, leaving gaping chasms in the narrative arcs botched together with clumsy melodrama, action and suspense into a fatally-flawed and utterly unbelievable story.

    For a while, the translation of government measures into local intimidation and racist police practice, and resulting outrage among Muslim youth, are convincingly conveyed (thanks to scrupulous research) – as is the coexistence in everyday life of religiosity and secularism and traditional and modern behaviour patterns. But the demands of the thriller format transform accurate representations of grievance, by default, into simple determinants of extreme responses – validating rather than undermining the state’s hysterical repression of symptoms mistaken for causes. Britz cannot distinguish between a majority who feel strongly and a tiny minority prepared to contemplate indiscriminate malice and murder on behalf of either Crown or Caliphate – equally unlikely alternatives which obliterate the myriad of real-world compromise belief formations and stances we all routinely assume. There is no sense of those from Muslim backgrounds reassessing this part of their heritage (irrespective of spiritual or political motivations) as a means to reaffirm family and social allegiance in the face of such immediate threat – whereas a contribution to genuine debate would show the spectrum of expression among ordinary people leading to neither regressive cataclysm or Hollywood action heroism. Unfortunately, media business-as-usual combines genre convention with promotional hype, artistic arrogance and political cluelessness to render such modestly worthwhile aims inconceivable.

    Bipolar Disorders

    Kosminsky drew on childhood imaginings of a rebellious sister alter-ego for his conformist self. After his immigrant European parents escaped the Nazis, he had an “almost visceral desire to dig into the host society – but part of me was ashamed of that … I still feel the battle inside”. Yet while class mobility has similar effects, and despite racial exclusion precluding ‘passing’, Britz acknowledges only upwardly-mobile, establishment views (in liberal multicultural guise) of integration and assimilation – marking as suspect more downmarket British tendencies towards irreverence, disrespect for and distrust of authority, horizontal loyalty and solidarity. So not only are the cultural and class foundations of both religious and political beliefs and practices underplayed, but questions of how and in what spheres these are put into action remain unasked. Disillusionment and anger with and alienation from, as well as affiliation and loyalty to, official political discourses and institutions manifest themselves multifariously, not as the Manichean opposites shown here. And, sure enough, the researchers found widespread fury and frustration but no-one remotely like Sohail or Naz.
    Arising from the writer’s projection of his own conflicts into others – with subsequent misattributions of motives – this bipolar exposition on a cultural level requires wholesale repression of ambiguous and conflictual feelings and perceptions in drawing conclusions conducive to judgements of ineffable ‘otherness’ (and yields factual blunders too numerous to list). As in other mainstream fictional representations of British Muslims in recent years (see my discussion in ‘Same Difference?’Variant 23, 2005), Britz sacrifices an exploration of complicated biographies and social spheres in favour of individualised oversimplifications. Once stripped of social immersion, shallow sensationalised attributes chime with press headlines and political platitudes masquerading as objective criteria of liberal ‘balance’. Contradictory evidence is conveniently ignored – as with the recent Home Office Survey showing that UK Muslims identify significantly more strongly with ‘Britishness’ than any other ethnic group (with remedial citizenship classes therefore another alibi for officially disavowed Islamophobia).

    More generally, New Labour’s onslaught on civil liberties, in the wider project to criminalise dissent, spuriously associates individual experimentation with thoughts, words, images, ideas and lifestyles at odds with bourgeois norms as potential terrorism – conflating ‘anti-social’ behaviour with ultimate threats to society in legitimising ruthless monitoring and control. Parasitising this context in its purported realism, Britz perfectly fits the agenda of the ‘loyal opposition’ necessary for the manufacture of middle-class consent – which, incidentally, explains why MI5 (exemplars of the technocratic ‘intelligence’ fix) were so supportive during Kosminsky’s research. But interpreted as rhetorical fantasy more insidious than the BBC’s laughable Spooks (with Sohail, perhaps, like 24’s Jack Bauer), the writer-director’s spectacular smugness and pathetic pretense of critique are exposed – just as the fashionable rash of drama-docs he’s spearheaded specialise in substituting shallow simulation for serious analysis.

  • Sherrybaby, dir. Laurie Collyer (2007)

    The Substance of Abuse. Film review of Sherrybaby, directed by Laurie Collyer, published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 22, November 2007.

    The Substance of Abuse by Tom Jennings

    [film review of Sherrybaby, directed by Laurie Collyer, published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 22, November 2007]

    In parts resembling by-the-numbers issue-led TV docudrama and quirky low-budget indie feature, Sherrybaby exceeds the limits of these genres thanks to the honesty and subtlety of its narrative and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s magnificent immersion in the role of Sherry – a 22 year-old New Jersey junkie fresh out of prison trying to turn her life around and resume motherhood of a young daughter looked after by her brother and sister-in-law. Gyllenhaal exudes worldy-wise determination, vulnerability, sass and naivete, yet this is no naff redemptive melodrama puppeteering its audience’s emotions and pimping its characters. Instead, shameless manipulation and sentimentality are located firmly in Sherry’s behavioural repertoire and are consistently marked as self-destructive, inappropriate and/or abject – but also intelligible responses to the arbitrary, corrupt environment in which she struggles in childlike desperation to negotiate friendship, family and official relationships.
    Former documentary-maker Collyer based the story on a close friend’s life and her own experiences as social work assistant. So the details of halfway house, probation routine and rehab groups ring completely true – where those she encounters exhibit occasional goodwill but, in this soul-crushing system, more often hover between cynical, hostile and downright pathological. Sherry strides cluelessly into the morass fortified by the Bible and simple-minded personal growth slogans, freely deploying her open sexuality and self-obsession to open doors always threatening to slam shut. The excellent supporting cast flesh out Gyllenhaal’s convincing naturalistic depiction of conflictuality: unpredictably sympathetic, alienating, victimised, brave and foolish. A powerfully poignant realism allows her wholly unrealistic (and potentially catastrophic) personal mythology – caring for a child in actuality rather than fantasy – to crumble as she backslides towards addictive oblivion.

    Collyer’s riskiest tactic was to contextualise Sherry’s conduct in the dysfunctional emotional quagmire of her parental home, prompting familiar reductive cliches of preoccupied distant mother and premature sexualisation via paternal abuse as precursors to a promiscuous infantile inability to maintain boundaries and sustain mature mutuality. These issues are not fudged, but creditably faced head-on – as they should be. Better still, the pitfalls are sidestepped by sketching the possibility of progress only with collective generosity and shared effort, the recognition of weakness and give and take among equals, and due respect given for following one’s desires. The flashes of genuine passionate connection between Sherry, her friends and family thus signal chances for a fruitful future as well as the very definite prospect of reproducing the cycle of damage – neither tragedy nor triumph being logically foreclosed or morally judged. And if you generalise the reference points of addiction, narcissism and objectification to the contemporary stranglehold of sociopathic consumerism – then that’s an unusually intelligent and worthwhile message to find on a cinema screen.

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