‘You Can’t Handle the Truth…’

One of the most famous lines in movie history comes from the film ‘A Few Good Men’ released in 1992. The film, directed by the hugely underrated director Rob Reiner (just look at his filmography!), was based on a play by Aaron Sorkin and was concerned with holding those in power, in this case in the military, to account. Tom Cruise’s youthful, green-about-the gills prosecutor is questioning Colonel Nathan R. Jessop, a deeply conservative, and deeply intimidating figure, in the witness stand. Pushed for the truth behind the death of two black marines, Jessop delivers the famous line: ‘You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.’ He implies that the public don’t want to know what it takes to keep the fantasy of their country going because, if they did, it would burst the bubble.

Sad thing is? I think he’s right.

In ‘Don’t Look Up’, Adam McKay’s prestigious new movie, released on Christmas Eve on Netflix, two astronomers, played by Leonardo diCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, discover a meteor heading directly for the Earth and predict an ‘extinction level’ catastrophe but are met with a bemusing lack of concern which escalates into total denial despite the overwhelming evidence. It’s a nice conceit, well supported with excellent comic turns from Meryl Streep as a female Trump-alike, and a brilliantly obnoxious Jonah Hill as a sycophantic Chief of Staff.

It is, of course, a satire primarily about the looming environmental crisis and our collective failure to act despite consistent warnings. But it is the flagrant denial that anything is wrong, not just with the environment but with our society, that we should find as chilling. McKay portrays an America where the truth is there to be manipulated, denied or ignored, not that this is purely an American problem. Facts are challenged by politicians, or dismissed as too negative by the media. The impending disaster is politicised; ‘Don’t Look Up’ becomes a slogan for the government, one that a huge swathe of the population adopt and support. Anything but face the reality.

Another blockbuster movie this Christmas was the new Matrix movie. I’ll come clean, I haven’t seen it but the very fact that, at this moment in our history, another movie in a franchise which is all about mankind choosing to ignore their reality is released is fascinating.

Avoiding reality, or at least, avoiding hearing what we don’t want to hear, is all too easy. Don’t like the news? It’s because they’re biased. Don’t like the scientists? It’s because they’re politicised. Don’t like being wrong? Never, ever admit it.

This is denial. According to the famed Kubler-Ross model of 1969, denial is the first stage in the human response to loss. In this stage, grievers refuse to accept the validity of the prognosis, searching instead for a false but preferable reality. The model suggests that humans will hide from the truth to avoid pain and according to Kubler-Ross herself, can be applied to a range of circumstances, not just the grieving process. The concern is that people in this state are easily misled when times are challenging. Like now. Times are undeniably difficult and people genuinely feel some degree of loss. COVID-19, Brexit, climate change, energy crises, culture wars, the potential for real war in Ukraine. It is understandable that so many of us are looking for an escape, an answer to the question ‘What the fuck is going on?’ but one which is palatable. Politicians know this; so do the media.

Capitol Hill, January 2021: Denial spills into anger

Let’s take Boris Johnson and Donald Trump as examples. People in both countries wanted to believe in a strong leader, who had clear simple answers to the complex problems of modern existence. Leaders who ‘said it like it is’, who were ‘one of us.’ And so, when evidence began to appear that the Russians had Trump in their pockets, Trump was able to dismiss the reports as ‘fake news’ and the people bought it. When he lost the election, Trump was able to simply deny the numbers were accurate, and enough people wanted to believe him that they marched on Capitol Hill, rampaging through the once hallowed corridors of power threatening violence towards Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. And here, in Britain, with Boris Johnson and his cabinet in the midst of ‘Partygate’, many are suggesting that the accusations are being manipulated by a left-wing media to bring down their man. The Conservatives are looking to shift attention from themselves to the BBC, choosing this moment to attack the licence fee, in a blatant bit of populist politics. Because they know people would rather believe in the politician they voted for than the ‘biased’ reporters. To be clear, this is not party political. The same denial was evident within the Labour Party throughout Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as the reports of antisemitism grew.

At each juncture, the people, so desperate to believe that everything is still alright, accepted anything rather than admit to the less acceptable reality that maybe they got it wrong. We let them off. We accept what they say because we don’t want to hear the truth. Col. Jessop was right. We can’t handle it, and they know it. So their behaviour gets worse whilst they placate the public with falsehoods and distraction.

This denial extends into all facets of life. The climate is ok, it’s all scare-mongering. Extinction Rebellion are loonies. The royal family are great, it’s all a left-wing conspiracy. Statues of rich and powerful men with a history of exploitative practices are ‘part of our history’ and ‘shouldn’t be judged by today’s standards.’ Whatever they are. Just so long as the radio keeps playing Queen tunes, we’ll all be okay.

The next step in Kubler-Ross’ model is more worrying still. That is frustration, and anger. Once those dealing with loss have exhausted their denial, then they become angry, kicking out against what they perceive to be the blockage, becoming aggressive towards the perceived problem. Discourse in the US has begun to include references to civil war. A populace fuelled on the exploitation of their denial is exploding into anger. Propaganda from the left and the right is increasingly divisive and, well, angry and there are prominent figures who are only too happy to prod the hornet’s nest, to exploit the nation’s mood.

If we follow the Kubler-Ross model through, then what we need to move towards is an understanding and an acceptance of the world that we live in, and our place in it. To strive for a recognition of what we have lost; some might think this is an identity, or the security that our leaders know best. We may feel that we have lost the things that we thought we stood for. Okay. Let’s accept that things have changed, for better or for worse and then let’s look to move forwards. Let’s not live in denial, looking to blame the messengers, attacking those that present us with uncomfortable information and accepting any old bollocks rather than what evidence is showing us.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this piece, please like or follow. And feel free to comment. Cheers.

‘A Little More Humanity, Please!’

It is 1887. Mandell Creighton, professor of ecclesiastical history at Cambridge is faced with a weighty dilemma and it has caused him to call upon his editor, Lord Acton of Bridgnorth, Shropshire. How, he wonders, should one weigh the actions of those granted divine power by the Catholic Church? Creighton was a keen advocate of historiographical balance and accepting behaviours as a part of their historical context. But when attempting to negotiate the lives of Sixtus IV (a renowned plotter and someone perfectly at home to the odd bit of nepotism), Alexander VI, whose family name, Borgia, may ring a bell (a licentious, power-hungry conspirator) and Julius II (who Machiavelli himself described as ‘an ideal prince’) he was finding it hard to separate the men from their roles. How could he write of such corruption and nepotism in his history of the Renaissance papacy? Perhaps it would be best for all concerned if he stick to the details of their papal role and keep all the messy private lives out of it. He suggested as much to Lord Acton. The reply he received contained one of the most famous and oft-quoted lines about people in power:

‘I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong,‘ he wrote. ‘If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Power corrupts. The greater the power, the greater the tendency to corruption. Acton wasn’t the first to recognise this inverse relationship between integrity and power. In 1883, a religious writer, Robert Ingersoll wrote of Abraham Lincoln: ‘Nothing discloses real character like the use of power. It is easy for the weak to be gentle. Most people can bear adversity; but if you wish to know what a man really is give him power. This is the supreme test.’

In the piece, Ingersoll praises Lincoln by setting him up as the exception to the rule. In maintaining moral qualities of mercy and equality, Lincoln, in Ingersoll’s view, had dodged the bullet that just about everybody else could not.

Events across 2021, some obviously set in motion long before then, have given us plenty of opportunity to review the wisdom of these words. The leaders of the ‘free’ world have found themselves wanting: from Donald Trump’s open flaunting of the truth and his abuse of the power granted to him, leading to what almost amounted to a revolution last January; to the UK Conservative party’s ‘jobs for the boys’ approach to the pandemic and Boris Johnson’s complicity in repeatedly covering-up his party’s disregard for lockdown measures they imposed, it seems that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the powerful to maintain any kind of ethical integrity.

Perhaps the starkest and grimmest example of the terrible corrosive effect of power on humanity is in the ongoing investigations into Jeffrey Epstein which have led, thus far to his conviction (and death in custody) and that of Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of the notoriously corrupt Robert. I will leave aside the familiar, saddening fact that, in a case where the real inhumanity came from the actions of men, it is a woman, however guilty, that is the only one so far convicted. I would hope that her incarceration is the tip of the iceberg (although, I won’t hold my breath). The exposure of what amounted to a cabal of extremely powerful male paedophiles will only fuel the conspiracies of the QAnon brigade. But it should also make us look again at Acton’s words.

Power corrupts. Why? Is it that those who seek power are fundamentally flawed to begin with? That simply wanting to get into such positions suggests a lack of empathy or humanity? Jon Ronson’s insightful book, ‘The Psychopath Test’ suggests that the higher you climb, the more likely you are to come into contact with a psychopath, or the more likely you are to have such tendencies yourself. This idea is superbly satirised by Bret Easton Ellis and Mary Harron in his novel and her film of ‘American Psycho’. In the novel, the protagonist, Patrick Bateman, is a prosperous empty shell of a human being, who is driven entirely by others’ perception of him. That, and an overwhelming desire to kill. Is that it? Are they all sociopaths or worse?

Is it more likely that they do terrible things because they think they will get away with it? It is a tragic and horrific fact that incidents of rape against women increase when society breaks down, for example in times of war. It is estimated that as many as 2 million German women were victims of rape in the last months of the Second World War. Perhaps, for the powerful, the laws and morals of society mean little. The Russian soldiers marching through Germany would certainly have had that power. Epstein himself clearly thought that he was untouchable, particularly after the slapped wrist handed out by the Florida State Court in 2008: a 13 month sentence, much of it as ‘work release’, and a plea bargain which meant 36 of the victims were never heard at the time. Video of Epstein unveiled in the Sky documentary ‘Epstein’s Shadow’, show him almost smirking as he is questioned. Donald Trump was open about how money and power meant sexual favours, famously taped in a campaign bus telling a reporter ‘When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything; grab them by the pussy.’ Prince Andrew can say openly, on camera, that he never went upstairs at Epstein’s mansion despite there being photographic evidence that he was. And our own leader, Boris Johnson can say that he knew nothing about Christmas parties however unlikely that may seem. Oh, and he can also say that he spent the last two weeks ‘in this country…’ If that wasn’t a lie, then he needs to work on his delivery. He came across with all of the integrity of Paul Whitehouse in full ‘I will nick it’ mode.

Does part of the blame, then, lie with the media. Certainly, for a democracy to function, then politicians must be held to account. As Scottish activist Jimmy Reed said in 1999: ‘The task of a media in democracy is not to ease the path of those who govern, but to make life difficult for them by constant vigilance as to how they exercise the power they only hold in trust for the people.’ The media’s role is to hold the powerful to account, without favour or bias. A flourishing democracy has a well-informed people, and so the media should be without favour or bias. But what happens when alliances are forged between leaders and the media that is supposed to hold them to account? When the relationship between the media and the leadership is one of mutual benefit? Leaders who can refuse access to certain journalists, as many now do, are not being held to account rigorously. You don’t have to like Piers Morgan, but he had the Government hiding from his tenure on Good Morning Britain. Even the BBC, with its long tradition of impartiality, freed from the guiding influence of advertisers, has been subject to scrutiny recently, particularly regarding the supposed sympathy that outgoing political editor Laura Kuenssberg had for the incumbent PM.

Has 21st Century Western hegemony lost its moral compass? Are we just not going to church anymore and does this mean we are more selfish? I don’t think so – I certainly hope not. Richard Dawkins may not be the nicest human being but at the centre of his arguments for humanism is a core humanity, a decency, for want of a better word, which connects us all. What would it mean for us all if that were a myth? Is ‘The Lord of the Flies’ a true reflection of man left ‘un-guided’?

The root of the problem may be in the public education system from which so many of the powerful come. Friendships formed in the dorms of the most expensive schools become ‘networks’ for quick, easy, ‘trustworthy’ affiliations and mutual benefits which then influence national and global policy. Ideas about hierarchies of power and of the nature of society which are planted in the oak panelled corridors become embedded across the broader environment of the boardroom and cabinet offices. It is probably true to say that the powerful do not understand how most of us live and therefore have a different view of the consequences of their actions. If your best mate is a prince, you probably believe you are invincible. And if your old school friend is now the owner of a global media corporation, then a little chat over a round of golf will ensure that certain things don’t come to light, if you don’t want them to. It’s really not that different to the days of Pope Alexander VI is it?

It is, as Acton notes, all too easy to become corrupted by power. Perhaps John Steinbeck is right when he says that it is not power that corrupts but ‘fear…perhaps the fear of a loss of power.’ The strongest voices, both in major corporations and in political parties, are those that provide the data and formulate strategies which will keep them in power, or will protect shareholders’ investments, or their own liberty to act without censure. Integrity does not come into it. Perhaps it is true that, for these people, it is not the power that corrupts but the fear that they may lose it. So, as we move through the Christmas period and into the New Year, is it too much to ask for the powerful amongst us, those who are the captains of industry and those who lead us, to consider first and foremost, their humanity? To rediscover the moral compass that appears all too easy to ignore. To perhaps listen more to their hearts and a little less to their heads which have been stuffed with thoughts of self-preservation for way too long, or to at least try to resist the more offensive cravings of their genitalia. To strive to make decisions based on compassion, honesty, fairness and most pertinently, perhaps, a little selflessness?

If not? Well, again, Acton says it best: ‘Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility.’ Let history, so beloved of Mr Johnson of course, be their judge.

Happy New Year…

White People Got A Lot Of Problems…

I notice that Spotify have started producing ‘mood’ playlists. Mine always seem to be Moody, Chill, Romantic (?) and Happy. Is that the sum total of ‘moods’ out there? What happened to ‘Mercurial’, or ‘Quixotic’? Anyway, the Moody one is classic, doomy shizzle: Nico, Sufjan Stevens, New Order, Wilco etc. All great stuff if a little gloomy. But here’s the thing: the playlist is exclusively white artists. The Happy one? James Brown. Stevie Wonder. Billy Preston. Harry Belafonte. Bill Withers… Something becomes increasingly apparent. Black people are happy. White people are sad. So, may we deduce from this that its white people that have the issues? It certainly seems like they have. I had a little look at recurring themes in the Moody playlist. These included: existential loneliness (These Days, Nico); Millenial self-interest (Don’t Wanna Know, Bo Burnham); angsty yearning (Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want, The Smiths). Even falling in love seems like a tortuous cry from the soul when Billie Eilish gets hold of it. (It’s spoiling her night’s sleep unfortunately). When you’re writing lyrics like ‘What a drag it is to love you like I do’ as she does in ‘Halley’s Comet’, you know something’s wrong.

Compare that to the Happy playlist. Dancing through the shit (Get Up Offa That Thing, James Brown), a celebration of musical heroes (Sir Duke, Stevie Wonder), the healing power of love (Lovely Day, Bill Withers), the power of positivity to overcome the darkness (Move On Up, Curtis Mayfield). Jesus, what more positive statement of life than Sam Cooke’s ‘(What A) Wonderful World’ do you need? Most of these could easily be some doomy shit. The themes are still to do with pain, difficulties, the harsh existence of life. But they don’t go there. To quote Bing Crosby, they ‘accentuate the positive’ without ignoring the negative.

I should qualify this by saying that I love doomy music and that Billie Eilish, Bo Burnham et al are just as capable of writing happy tunes (I guess?). There are plenty of white artists in the Happy list too. But there does seem to be an over-arching pattern here. There are no black artists in the Moody mix. Not one. Nada. Zilch. Do they not get moody? Is it a purely white experience?

Which makes me think of The Clash…

In 1977, on their debut album, The Clash stirred up a bit of a rumpus with the song White Riot. These were racially charged times. The National Front were a visible presence on the streets of England’s cities. The country’s attitude to immigration had hardened. In 1968, with the Commonwealth Immigration Act, Britain shut the door on ‘coloured’ people from within the Commonwealth, a door which had previously been wide open until people from Pakistan, India and the West Indies took up the offer. Shockingly, the door remained open if you were white. The riots in Red Lion Square in 1974, Notting Hill in 1976 and Lewisham in 1977 were very public signs of the crack starting to show. What Joe Strummer saw in these riots was action. A response. A positive response, if we take the emotive judgement values out of violent public disorder. In White Riot, The Clash question why it is that white people do as their told whilst black people, as he saw it, kick back against the pricks. It was a call to arms for white people, as well as a show of solidarity to the black cause.

‘Black man gotta lot a problems
But they don’t mind throwing a brick
White people go to school
Where they teach you how to be thick’

Now, I’m not promoting violent revolution (at least, I don’t think I am, but sometimes…). And I am making a bit of a leap. But, to me, there is something in this. There is something in the culture of white British people that seems to want to squat in misery. Look at the Romantic poets. By today’s standards, they were living it large: drifting across the most beautiful parts of Europe in a miasma of self-conscious misery. White people seem to find something beautiful in questioning the meaning of everything. Nice problem to have. It’s the same with today’s pop musicians. They’ve learned that melancholia shifts units. They make serious music which raises all of the problems with their lives and these seem to boil down to a search for something, a meaning in all of the madness. They seem to be lost in a void of spiritual yearning.

On the other hand, if it’s sheer unmitigated joy at being alive that you want, look to black artists. If it’s anger leading to positive action you want, look to black artists. Even Hip-Hop, which has its own issues with ugly misogyny and tired stereotypes, manages to sound more up and at ’em than most white artists. Black musicians just don’t seem to whine, even though, surely if anyone should be moaning it’s them?

It goes beyond race. As Johnny Rotten once said (and I paraphrase) all the best stuff comes from the streets. And it is definitely true that all this maudlin self-analysis is a middle-class thing. Grime and Dubstep were street-level movements, one which combined black and white culture; it was many things, but maudlin it wasn’t. I use the past-tense here by the way because my mate is going to see Stormzy at the NIA in Birmingham soon, so, as a street movement, it is very dead. The dance craze of the 90s was driven by working class white youth. And then there’s Sleaford Mods. There is something more genuinely angry about all of these but there is also that sense of positivity, that things can change, that things will get better.

I’m also not saying that black artists don’t explore serious themes or doomy emotions. There is some horribly syrupy self-analysis in R’n’B. My point is that there is something uplifting about they way black artists explore melancholia or pain. For me, the greatest exponent of this art is Donny Hathaway. His life was about as tragic as they come. Born in the projects of Chicago, he was raised by his grandmother. He found some success in the early 70s with tracks like The Ghetto Pt 1. In 1971, just as his career was getting up and running, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and he started to display increasingly erratic behaviour. By 1979, he was dead, having thrown himself from a 15th storey apartment window. An unspeakable tragedy, and one which is all too common amongst artists, black or white. But compare the work of, say, Ian Curtis of Joy Division, or Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. Both were outstanding white artists who ended their lives in tragic circumstances; both produced an often brilliant catalogue of powerful music. For them, though, the pain and emptiness of their existence is very apparent in their work. It is challenging and emotionally devastating to listen to. By all accounts, a downer.

Listen, though, to Donny Hathaway…

Someday We’ll All Be Free: Donny Hathaway

The music is, in a word, beautiful. For sure, there is pain in his voice, so much that it is an emotional experience. The lyricist on the sessions, Edward Howard (who deserves his own credit for managing to write words which find spiritual meaning in desperate times) said that Hathaway himself cried at the playback. I’m not surprised. But what is also there in the music and in Hathaway’s voice, is hope, and a truly soulful ecstasy. It can only be the church which Hathaway, and so many other black artists had in their music. Soul, after all, is gospel music with secular lyrics.

My conclusion. Well, hard as it is to hear, maybe if you have real-life problems, then the last thing you need is someone telling you all about theirs. Maybe it is the church that gives so many black artists the faith to search for hope whilst modern white culture is searching for a different kind of meaning. Or maybe it’s just a cultural thing. Maybe it’s just that white culture finds a beauty in misery whilst other cultures, well… don’t.

I’ll leave you with a smile, though, from the master of taking pain and turning it into magic. Maybe the Moody playlist crew need to listen to the words of James Brown… (he’s 44 years old here, by the way!)

Maybe you can cheer me up by recommending some of the best ‘Happy’ songs in the Comments section? (Make the case for ‘Shiny Happy People’, I dare you). Give us a like and a follow if you enjoy what you read! Cheers!

Of Dogs and Men

(Mild spoilers for ‘The Power of the Dog’ included)

Now, that will have got a reaction. Harry Styles, who, I’m heartened to see, is now heading off in all kinds of directions rather than the somewhat limited ‘one’ of his former band, is wearing a tutu. And there are other times when he dresses more like a woman than a ‘proper ruddy fella’. You can almost smell the fury…

Something about a man in a dress is guaranteed to make men uncomfortable; men who now feel that their very existence is under attack from feminists and gays and trans-wotsits. (Oh, and students. And men who write poetry. And men who don’t like sport. And men who don’t like cars, or rock music, or Goodfellas, or who let a woman drive them around, or who question anything the country may have done militarily over the last 100 years). And most women, obviously.

But they never stop to ask why. Why does it bother them so much when another man decides that, instead of pulling on jeans and trainers, he’s going to wear a dress? Or make-up? Because it really does bother them. It actually makes them angry. Angry enough to vote for Trump, or Farage, or just about anyone who will make them feel secure in their identity.

Men compete with other men and this is true from the school playground to the workplace. If you’re not the Alpha in the room, you have to at least try. You challenge, either directly, through just being the loudest or the most attractive to females, or indirectly by a more subtle undermining or sarcasm.

Now, if I came across someone like Phil, the staunchly masculine character played brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch in Jane Campion’s new movie ‘The Power of the Dog,’ (out on Netflix from 1st December) then I might find it difficult to make much of a challenge at all. As he rides into town at the head of his cattle herd, effortlessly guiding his horse with one hand whilst he rolls a cigarette with the other, he’s already put the testosterone meter needle into the red. His brother, George rides alongside him. Played by Jesse Plemons in a turn which is so placid it’s almost comatose, George is overweight, taciturn. He wears a suit, even on horseback, and a daft bowler hat. Phil, ever the Alpha, even calls him ‘Fatso’ to his face with no response. This relationship, however, is an early illustration of some of the complexity to come. These are not your typical loose-livin’, punch-throwin’ quick-drawin’ cowboys of myth. One of them is trying to be just that. The other seems to be more accepting of reality. And one of them might just be gay.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil: the ‘Dog’s’ bollocks…

Added into this study of masculinity is Peter, a quiet, introverted young man, who enjoys making paper flowers and keeps a scrapbook of images including women in pretty dresses. In other words, he is the other extreme to Phil’s rugged machismo and every bit as much of a stereotype. Except he isn’t. And neither is Phil. Instead, as the film progresses, so does our understanding of two complex men.

This is a fascinating movie. It is Jane Campion’s attempt to explore the questions posed above: What is it with men? Why the desire to match up to only one ideal of manhood? What is the cost of all this repression? These are ideas she has explored before but less directly. In ‘Top Of The Lake’, her enthralling TV series for the BBC (now also available on Netflix) the toxic masculinity is presented as an open wound in New Zealand’s very soul. It is both horrifying and challenging. But ‘The Power Of The Dog’ approaches the issue as one which has infected America too. It pokes the corpse of that most American of myths, the cowboy, and watches the whole shebang crumble. I almost feel like providing a trigger warning for white men, particularly those who are distressed at female Doctor Whos or the fact that Captain Marvel was a woman.

For a film set as the Western myths are dying, male creativity is a surprising motif and it is a thread which torments Cumberbatch’s Phil. He is a superb banjo player with what appears to be a perfect ear so we can presume he is a naturally talented musician. In a clever piece of detailed characterisation Phil is clearly fine with the banjo, forever the romantic sound of men being men in the Wild West. But God forbid anyone tries to play the goddamned piano, or, as Phil (deliberately) mispronounces it ‘pernana’. That mispronunciation is even more telling when we learn that Phil graduated from Harvard after studying Classics. Not your everyday cowboy then…

He expertly winds together strips of cowhide to make rope, twisting the strips ever tighter, pulling together the loose strands to make a complete, durable whole. Campion examines this process in a series of close-ups, as Phil works. Perhaps because it matters to Phil; he can create something hard and durable out of the soft individual strips. A construct, just as he is, built of ‘softer’ stuff but terrified to reveal it. The craft of the rope is given greater poignancy by the end of the movie.

The film is bursting with tension, a tension which Jonny Greenwood’s superb score creates and then extends; it’s as though your nerves are the tightly-plucked pizzicato violin and guitar strings, the motifs circling and drifting without ever finding resolution. Throughout, we await the inevitable explosion of violence. We crave it because we’ve all seen westerns before and we know what happens. We crave the catharsis of male violence. But it never comes. Unlike Unforgiven, another exploration of the myth of the male, we do not get a release. In that film, the violence served as the moral; it was shocking to see William Munny succumb to his urges for drink and then violence. But that movie had its cake and ate it by showing that violence has consequences and that violent men are not heroes whilst still revelling in the questionable satisfaction the viewer feels when Munny opens fire. There is no such catharsis for the viewer in ‘Power of the Dog.’ Here, the tension is not so much external as it is internal, a suppression of feeling which is crippling Phil, and which is perhaps only released with his death.

‘Phil’ is a lie. Everything about him is forced; he is a construct, a shield built around a highly intelligent, sensitive, complex man. Interestingly, so too is Peter, in a way. The film studies these ‘constructed’ identities over and over again. Rose, the only developed female character in the movie, is wilting under the expectations of her new husband as she tries to be what he wants her to be. Her personality is forced upon her by men; Phil terrifies her, George wants more from her. Perhaps the most upsetting scene in the film comes when Rose is forced in a squirmingly difficult, passive-aggressive way, to play piano for distinguished guests. Watching Dunst’s performance as she crumbles under the expectation, is an edifying experience. Unsurprisingly, Rose is at her happiest at the beginning of the film, when she is running a small guesthouse with only Peter for company.

But it is in the juxtaposition of Phil and Peter that the film truly fascinates. I don’t think Campion, or Thomas Savage who wrote the novel on which the film is based, have answers. It is a film which raises questions; you will undoubtedly want to talk about it afterwards.

Just like Harry Styles. If the picture of a man in a tutu or Jane Campion’s film challenge us as men, then we need to ask why. And maybe, for once, consider whether we are the ones with the problem…

Agree with me? Don’t agree with me? Just want to put down some thoughts about the film? I’d love to hear them. Click on ‘Leave a Comment’ at the top left of the screen to, you know, leave a comment…

On the Beatles Bandwagon

Been watching ‘Get Back’, Peter Jackson’s exhaustive highlights reel from the 150 hours of documentary footage of The Beatles as they attempt to produce from scratch a set for a live performance and album.

Paul ‘Marshalls’ the troops…

What struck me immediately was the madness, and perhaps hubris, in even attempting to do it. They had just gone through what was, to all intents and purposes, a difficult and cold experience pulling together an album that, ultimately they were either too tired, or too bored to put a proper title and cover on, never mind edit with any real care. The ‘White’ album, as it is known purely because they decided not to put anything on the cover, was a flawed, sprawling Eton Mess of a record; a ‘bit of a this, a bit of that, chuck it all in and stir it up, see what comes out’ kind of thing. Obviously, when you’ve got arguably two of the greatest songwriters of the period in your band, some of it is going to stick, but it’s also, to my ears, quite an unpleasant, ego-driven, vanity project, without the conciseness or edge of previous records. George is already showing signs of fatigue and despondency with his offerings and perhaps suffering from a crippling lack of confidence. I suspect that he already had some of the great songs which made up the triple album ‘All Things Must Pass’ but was met with such disinterest from the the other two behemoths whenever he offered anything, that he sat on them (the songs, not the bandmates, that is).

John, meanwhile, has met Yoko and heroin; not the most productive combination. Again, I suspect the loss of Brain Epstein and the loss of his status as band leader, somewhere around Revolver, left him frustrated and unhappy. I also think that there was an incident in Rishikesh, where the band had gone on a spiritual ‘holiday’. Things between John and Paul seemed different after that. Is it possible that John revealed a deeper love for Paul than he was comfortable with? Just look at the songs he wrote for the ‘White’ album: Happiness is a Warm Gun, I’m So Tired, Julia, Dear Prudence, Revolution #9. These are not the creative products of a contented man, nor of a happy one, and they are almost exclusively introspective.

Their problem? Paul McCartney. He had emerged throughout the latter half of the Sixties as the creative force behind the band. Sgt Pepper was his concept. Magical Mystery Tour was filled with McCartney genius. The closest to a classic Beatles sound on the White album is McCartney. His singles of the time are regarded as some of the greatest of all Beatles songs: Lady Madonna, Hey Jude. The sophistication of his songwriting was leaving the others behind. And yet, he remained loyal, resisting the temptation to go solo. I bet the others wished he would. The band that had won English and American hearts with their obvious tight friendship and quick wittedness had become a taught, frustrated bag of jealousies and damaged egos.

All of this, then, came to a boil nicely with ‘Get Back.’ We have heard a lot, in Beatle-fandom, about how the tapes from the period don’t tell the story that we’ve all believed: that the sessions were fractious, difficult and lacking that crucial spark of any real creativity. That, in fact, they were still four friends, still interested in just making music together. Well, that ain’t true. There are moments of levity, sure. You’d be hard pressed to sit four old friends and colleagues in a room together for a month without there being some fun had. But, whilst incredibly fascinating, the tapes are precisely what we always thought they were. McCartney is punctual. He is productive. He is pushing the others to do more than just the same old corny thing. George is truculent, self-conscious, lacking confidence (often making self-deprecating comments about getting his mate Clapton in instead – how painful that Clapton, the nasty old twat, also stole his wife!). It is Lennon, though, who I found most painful to watch. Because, for much of the time, he is just not present. Where is the sharp-tongued, funny, aggressive and swaggering man of legend? He is habitually late to sessions. He often turns up unwashed, in the same clothes as yesterday (Harrison makes a witty comment about him being more prepared for the editing suite than the others who, he says, will look like they nipped of to get changed every half hour). He offers little other than some rather tired blues-y efforts, which, of course, Paul works hard to fashion into something useable. He is acutely and perhaps understandably, bored. The band he loved is not his anymore. They don’t even rock like he always wanted them to; he criticises Harrison’s maudlin ‘I Me Mine’ because ‘We’re a rock band y’know!’ Harrison’s attempts to get the others to recognise his talents, or at least to try to provide material which they were (wilfully?) short of is ignored. He doesn’t have the confidence to push the band to work on them to the standard he wants and this makes him increasingly dismissive of the others. In one moment that comes as a real shock to the viewer expecting this to be a nostalgia-fest of Fab-Fourdom, he stops a rehearsal of ‘Don’t Let Me Down, with the words ‘I think it’s awful… If you had a tape with that on, you’d get rid of it straight away…’ To be honest, I don’t disagree with him, but it’s still a shock. Unsurprisingly, he walks out of the sessions. Ringo, meanwhile, sits dutifully waiting for something to do. As bored as Lennon in his own way.

It was always going to be a tall order. Marshalling four bored megastars into a work of almost off-the-cuff creativity was always a ‘make-or-break’ plan. What makes it all the more depressing is the quality of what each of the band would produce once freed from the confines of the group, not least Harrison’s ‘All Things Must Pass’. The title track of that would have made a beautiful Beatles song, carrying exactly the kind of zeitgeisty feel for the end of the Sixties and the optimism that is lacking in ‘Get Back’. They rehearsed it, but, in a move typical of Harrison at the time, he gave up on it, too battered by the lack of support. But then, maybe he knew that it just wasn’t right for the ‘Get Back’ project. Perhaps the suspiciously nasty ‘Get Back’ single is the perfect summation of it. Of course, they then pulled a blinder with ‘Abbey Road.’ Watching these sessions, it seems even more of a feat that they were able to pull together that last time.

Anyway, all of this sent me back to a playlist I did years ago of a ‘Black’ album. Y’know, the one that every white man of 50 or more has made where you pick songs recorded after the split for a follow up to Abbey Road? Here’s mine, if you’re interested… Let me know your thoughts.

What The Beatles Might Have Done Next…

Side One:

  1. Another Day
  2. Imagine
  3. Dear Boy
  4. My Sweet Lord
  5. Every Night

Side Two:

  1. God
  2. Maybe I’m Amazed
  3. Beaucoups of Blues
  4. What is Life?
  5. Ram On

Side Three

  1. Gimme Some Truth
  2. Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey
  3. Mother
  4. Junk

Side Four

  1. All Things Must Pass
  2. Instant Karma
  3. Sentimental Journey
  4. The Back Seat Of My Car

Golf Will Kill Us All…

Jeff Bezos and Donald Trump are playing a round in space. It’s 2085. They’re still alive because, like, technology, yeah? So, there they are. On the tricky eighth ‘hole’ (which is a bit of a specious notion because, technically, space is one big hole really but go with it). Donald, or at least, the dried up, Davros-like semi-human that Donald has become by now, has been regaling Jeff with tales of his latest fem-bot, which has ‘a pussy like a ten-pin bowling ball’ which makes it a damn sight easier to grab her whenever the need arises. (Women, naturally, have given up on men decades ago and have done one to the far side of the universe, taking the kids with them).

Jeff is chuckling at this as he steps up. He has a practise swing, then, wheezing softly, he bends to place his Titleist 2085 ball on the tee. He’s not been in the best of moods; the shipment of spring water from his private mountain range was delayed because of another damn pandemic on the Earth and he has just learned that Coldplay can’t play at his 121st birthday party because they’re double-booked with Elon. So, it is with more than a little irritation that he swing his three-iron and that would explain why he clips the ball with the tip of his club, sending it spinning off at 45 degrees, in an endless slice…

If you need an honest view of the state of the world, look at the behaviour of the billionaires. If anyone typifies the human desire to get the fuck away from everybody else, then it’s them. It used to be castles with walls around them. Then it was villas in the Italian hills, or ranches in the vast oases of America. Surely, the only reason that the Burj Khalifa is as high as it is so that the mega-rich can get as far up and away from the rest of humanity as it is possible to be? Never mind that it doesn’t have a working sewage system. The shit is driven away in trucks at ground level, so the rich never have to smell their own excrement. Christ, just think about how far that shit has to fall? Does it come down in frozen chunks? The higher you are, the less shit is falling around you, until you get to the bottom, ground level, where it must pile metres high.

And now, they’re scrambling to get into space.

Of course, it’s all in the interests of the poor, put-upon planet. But I can’t help thinking of Hugo Drax, the Nazi-fied villain of the Bond movie ‘Moonraker’. In the film, Drax builds his own fleet of space shuttles in which he transports the cream of humanity (in his case, the blonde and the beautiful) to a space station. Once there, deadly toxins are released with the intention of wiping out life on Earth so that Drax and his master-race can return and re-populate, only better (and a damn-sight more Caucasian) than before. It’s down to Roger Moore, a female doctor named ‘Goodhead’ and a bunch of American space marines to prevent Armageddon. Any of that sound familiar to you? (Okay – maybe we’re stretching it with the space marines…) And, isn’t Elon Musk the best Bond-baddy name ever?

Jeff Be… er, no, wait, that’s Hugo Drax.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we look to the works of Ian Fleming for hard social commentary but it does seem to be time to exit the planet for the mega-rich. Even Richard Branson, our very own, more cuddly billionaire super-villain, is at it. They all claim to be furthering humanity and they may well be doing just that but who’s going to be going with them into space when all of the Tescos and Aldis are underwater? You? Or that mega-rich arms dealer, whose kids go to school with Bezos’ kids?

So, they’ll get themselves set up comfortably in space to watch as the rest of us sink, or suffocate, or starve, or catch something nasty.

Or maybe, it’ll be something with a more poetic irony that finishes us off. Maybe Jeff Bezos’ golf swing will be the fifth horseman of the apocalypse. Imagine that golf ball he hit off the eighth tee is sent into a wildly spinning trajectory which sends it arcing around the Milky Way, forming its own gravity, assimilating matter, in a huge, broad orbit which eventually brings it home, roughly the size of a small moon, to smash into the Earth.

That’ll fuck his supply of mineral water…

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