Thursday, February 5, 2015

Au revoir l'enfance



Louis Malle made Au revoir les enfants, his masterpiece about childhood, set in a French school, in 1987 - the year my family moved to France and I started going to school there. I didn't see it in the cinema at the time because I was six, but a couple of years later it came to be among a handful of bashed-up VCRs my family regularly watched

Au revoir les enfants tells the story of a friendship between two boys - one Catholic, one Jewish - at a boarding school during the Second World War. The film shows the kids at play, in class, and venturing out with their teachers for the odd excursion beyond the school gates. It is shot through with nostalgia for childhood, but is also uncompromising in its examination of loneliness and exclusion. Malle's intuition for the soulfulness of children, the way he grasps their sense of alienation from the world of adults, makes the film poignant and vivid.

The world I went to school in when I arrived in France over forty years after the film's events was in many ways not particularly different. When I watched Au revoir les enfants then, its universe certainly didn't seem foreign or antiquated. The first school I attended, Ecole du Val, a large building with a plain playground at the bottom of town, by an old viaduct, had surely not changed a great deal since the 40s. In class we sat two by two at old twin desks with inkpot holders, and meekly raised our hands to ask to go to the toilet, which was a hole-in-the-ground job at the end of a long and cold tiled corridor. French lessons consisted of dictations and conjugation exercises; Maths, of sums that the teacher would call out and whose results we had to write down fast in chalk on our slates, which we held above our heads. In the canteen, we were served soup from great vats by large dinner ladies. At playtime, children played hopscotch, marbles or skip-rope.

When I arrived I could say 'bonjour', 'au revoir', 'merci beaucoup', 's'il vous plait', 'je m'appelle Caspar' and the numbers from one to ten. I had lived in the countryside in England, and to be propelled from quiet walks in the Blackmore Vale in Somerset to a busy Parisian suburb where I didn't understand anything, felt terribly hard. Teachers were enormous and forbidding - there was none of the Blue Peter-style singing songs and palling around with kids over Play-Doh that my teachers had gone for in England. Educators were strict, and inclined to tell you off or punish you, and school was a place for hard work, from 8.30 to 4.30 every day.

This is, in essence, the world that Malle depicts so brilliantly in Au revoir les enfants: crucially and devastatingly, the film hinges on that sense of displacement that children feel - that, perhaps, specifically French children feel, or felt. This sense that the world of grown-ups is forbidding, that you had better keep your nose out of their affairs, is key. In perhaps the best scene in the film, the main character, Julien, is left behind on a field trip taken by his class, in the enormous forest of Fontainebleau. Malle shows how children depend on grown-ups, are completely reliant on their help, and extracts so much anguish from this scenario. He very intelligently puts the viewer in the skin of the child, showing how although a war is going on, such a quotidian development can of itself be terrifying and devastating to a child. Later, he brilliantly shows how Julien is only dimly aware of events in the school: how the teachers are sheltering his friend Jean and several other Jewish people, and how compromised their existences are. In Malle's world, events in childhood are relatively simple, and it is adults who create terror, who manipulate the truth and hold secrets. When the film's terrible conclusion unfolds, Malle suggests that the act of growing up may simply be the veil of innocence being lifted from your eyes.

When preparing for school trips - my class went on 'Classe de mer' when I was eight, for two weeks - I remember my mother being frazzled by the list of demands. My twin sister and I needed our name printed on labels sewn into all our clothes, had to take a flannel each and our own soap box, were made to pack cagoules and thermal socks and all manner of old and hilarious clobber. We were made to write letters home to our parents every day, which our teacher read before posting "to check for spelling mistakes". Something of it seemed Gradgrind-like, revelling in the olden days, in the way things had always been. Childhood was a rehearsing of the past, built on a curious assimilation of hard education, tradition and high-minded French notions of 'liberty'. This aspect of France comes through in Malle's film, too - in its detail (the old, cold bathrooms in which Julien is left to soak on his own, dwelling on his own loneliness and misery; the harsh music lessons; the formality and strictures of school as well as its sense as a locus for discovery) - as well as in its argument. Malle is extremely stern towards the French, showing the banality of collaboration, the way it flourishes in a society that obeys and doesn't question. At the same time, he sees clearly the good intentions of French school, and laments the way it does not connect with children because it is built on lofty principles that evaporate all too easily.

I learnt French quickly enough; subsequently made friends easily and fast. Even then, French school could be daunting, but at least I was daunted at the same scale as other French children. But memories of being different in a cold, new world, still sometimes remind me of Au revoir les enfants. Weirdly, to this day, I consider my childhood as having taken place before I got to France, when I was innocent, back in England. Before I was six. Growing up takes place in that first burst of sorrow and discomfort.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Abdicate!

KINGSMAN,  a new ultra-violent Bond pastiche for attention-deficient 4Chan users, out today, is an almost breathtaking example of moral double standards. Matthew Vaughn, who oversaw the train wreck in question, not only has his racist, classist, homophobic, sexist, violent cake, but he eats it. Oh, how he eats it.

The film tells a basic story (we intend 'basic' here in its Web 2.0 usage, meaning 'obvious' or 'unsophisticated') of a young man being groomed by an old secret service of spies to become one of them in order to save the world over and over. The protagonist, known as 'Eggsy' in order to signpost his working class origins, is recruited by dashing posho action man Colin Firth to join the Kingsmen, an old bunch of secret agents who use umbrellas to fight, and all wear suits and glasses and have side-partings to denote their upper-classness. Having made it through an arduous training process during which 'Eggsy' defeats a selection of absurdly toffish rivals to be anointed the new 'Kingsman', he must defeat Valentine (played by Samuel L. Jackson with a check-this-out-yo lisp), a dastardly tech mogul who has invented a chip in your phone or something that makes people kill each other for no reason.

So far so OK-yeah-we've-seen-this-in-James-Bond-films. But where KINGSMAN differs from all that hokum is that it brings a new, schizoid, i-Pod generation -style ultraviolence to the mix, along with cheap visuals and tacky politics. The result is a film that aims to be bracingly tasteless, enjoyably daft, excitingly politically incorrect. The film's grossness, its intellectual barrenness and moral vacuum, are so completely inbuilt and assumed as positive points by its makers, that detractors will be wary of appearing prim for finding it vulgar and disgusting. But it is, and here's why.

KINGSMAN's director wants to return to an era before James Bond films got so dreary and politically correct. And he's right, it's so tiresome that people expect Bond's fuck-interests to have lines of dialogue these days. Why can't you just objectify women like you used to? Taking this Inbetweeners-level credo as its M.O., the film features three women - one a murderer who kills men with the blades she has instead of legs (zomg), the other a fellow recruit to the KINGSMAN service called Roxy who is given next to nothing to do and is handily ignored for vast chunks of the film, and the third a sexy Swedish princess, who is captured by Samuel L. Jackson and promises 'Eggsy' anal sex in return for her liberation. Stay classy, Matthew. The makers of the film clearly think that having a token female character recruited to the service is a pioneering act of feminism that gives them licence to sexually demean a paper-thin character who serves no purpose other than to be objectified. It's a double standard that is reflected everywhere in the film.

Early on, Colin Firth brutally beats up five men who have made the huge mistake of implying that he's gay. I know how he feels, I get ever so upset when that actually happens to me for real in the street. Later on, as if to serve penance for this act of grotesque prejudice, Firth murders a congregation of homophobic southern baptists in one long and disgustingly violent sequence. It's OK, two wrongs make a gay rights.

The film has a black villain, played by Samuel L. Jackson. Hooray for the inclusiveneness! Shame they had to ghetto him up to all hell and have Colin Firth smirkingly remark on his 'colourful' nature. 

Classism? Roll up, roll up. The film makes a huge deal of sticking up for the little guy, urging us to support 'Eggsy' in his defeat of the posh toffs who are his rivals for a job in the Kingsman service. The filmmakers apparently deem this stance to be sufficiently right-on for them to paint the upper-class kids as sneering poseurs, while 'Eggsy''s family and friends are depicted as ugly, feckless layabouts straight from Eastenders in the 90s. The film's one act of class consciousness in no way validates the stale and condescending depiction of class in the film. Meanwhile, although the film pokes fun at the upper-class yahoos it presents as straw-men for 'Eggsy' to defeat, it is in laughable thrall to flash cars, top hats, the races, 'Britain' and fine tailoring. Here we have, thrillingly, what seems to be a triple-standard. Exciting.

On, then, to supra-violence, and the orgy of cake-eating that this occasions in the film. Vaughn and co clearly believe they are permitted to display as much violence as they like, with the defence that the murders and attacks they depict are droll or fantastical. It's like a comic! Why, then, do they cynically make a big deal of the murder in the church and, later, of a moment when 'Eggsy''s mother is on the brink of murdering her baby daughter because of Samuel L. Jackson's stupid murder-chip making her do it? You can't extract sentiment, pathos or suspense out of individual killings of proper characters while brutally offing legions of cartoonish other ones in the name of 'a bit of fun'. It's not just distasteful, it's nonsensical, two-faced, cowardly, boorish and stupid. 

But then that's Kingsman all over - just a bit of fun, but one that hasn't bothered to consider why political correctness exists. It's politeness, that's all; it's manners, quite unlike the sort of parody of manners that Colin Firth's character exhibits and mansplains at tiresome length. And it isn't there to ruin everyone's fun, just the fun of little unreconstructed white boys who want to play with guns and women. Bad luck, 'Eggsy'. 

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Birdman's Comeback, or (I Don't Need To See That)

In an early scene in Alejandro G. Iñárritu's new film, Birdman, the main character, an old ex- movie star looking to make a name for himself in a new play on Broadway, speaks to a group of assembled journalists in his dressing-room. Among them are an excitable Japanese fellow who wants to know if Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) will make a follow-up film in his old 'Birdman' franchise, and a pretentious journalist who drawls at length about the act of creation. That journalist is played by Damian Young, whom viewers of the TV show The Comeback will recognise as Mark, husband to Lisa Kudrow's Valerie Cherish, an old ex- TV star looking to make a name for herself in a new TV show on HBO. To say that the comparison does not flatter Birdman may be more to do with The Comeback's strengths, particularly in the way it critiques the world it is set in.

The two works are defined by their method. The central conceit of  Birdman is that the entire film has been craftily edited to appear like one continuous shot, meaning that we follow the film's action over the course of several days in what looks like one dizzying take. This means that there is a great deal of Steadicam work involved in following Michael Keaton along corridors, and a fair amount of aerial match cuts designed to give the illusion of continuity. This stylistic straitjacket means that a lot of the film comes across as an extension of Riggan's mind: indeed, the film does some great work of positing the theatre as a metaphor for the actor's psyche, travelling with him into dark recesses and along tortuous corridors backstage, where Riggan frets about his life and work, and back out onto the vast and overlit stage itself, on which he hopes to present himself to the world.

The Comeback also hews closely to its central character, as the show affects to be a reality TV documentary following Valerie Cherish in her private and professional life. The format also allows us to explore the difference between reality and performance, making the audience work to discern what part of Valerie's presentation to camera is affected and what is genuine. The difference with Birdman is that the docu-drama conceit gives us the chance to experience the world around her in hyper-reality, and we are able to see what a helpless pawn she is, how tiny and futile Valerie's struggle is. Birdman's perspective is masculine, and masculinist: it perceives the world, and other people, as ramifications of Riggan's mind, and when he steps into the world outside his theatre (in one of the film's best scenes, when the actor unwittingly locks himself out of backstage in only his underwear) he may be vulnerable but he is walking in his world. The Comeback's perspective is feminine, and feminist, going so far as to criticise the world that Birdman adopts unquestioningly as its own: Valerie is essentially powerless in her own existence, relying on men and their clout for work and validation. The world she works in is not hers: it is just another place for her to fall over in, and she can be trod on by men or rescued by men, but her chances of making something for herself, as a woman, are slim to non-existent.

We see this in fantasy sequences in both works. In Birdman, Riggan imagines his own character from his film franchise, a winged superhero, giving him confidence and spurring him on, in a bravura sequence in which he takes flight above New York while voices tell him he can rise above everyone else. He also imagines himself to have the power to displace objects at will, which he does in his dressing-room when alone, smashing vases against walls. Riggan's imagined powers are violent and magical, enabling him to escape his situation, granting him uniqueness. He is special by dint of - well, in Birdman, a weakness of the film is that we are made to take Riggan's exceptionalism as granted and will him on for no other reason than that he is the central man. In The Comeback Series 2, Valerie Cherish plays a character based on herself, in a TV show called 'Seeing Red', scripted by her old foe from Series 1, Paulie G, who detests Valerie and has always made a point of demeaning her. The show within a show on Series 2 is Paulie G's revenge on Valerie, writing her into his show as a shrewish monomaniac who pushed him to depression in the past, and exacting humiliations on her both as a character and an actor. In fantasy sequences, Valerie is made to fellate Paulie, dress as a cartoon monster, and be tied, bound and gagged in a car trunk full of snakes in a sweltering desert. This is The Comeback's brutal takedown of male navel-gazing: the sense that the world is his to play around in, to build in his own image, is Paulie G's birthright. Valerie knows that she must go along with him or be perceived as joyless, stupid, a harpy - but the programme is clear that his fantasies are extensions of his self-aggrandising masculinity.

This theme continues with gender politics and the approach taken in both works to sexual relations between men and women. In the 'blowjob' episode of The Comeback (one of the most coruscating pieces of work you could ever see about women in the TV industry), Valerie Cherish is made to fellate Paulie G, the man who hates her. In Seeing Red, his re-imagining of their old conflicts, Paulie G is played by Seth Rogen, who early in the episode confuses Valerie by riffing during a scene they have together. She is a woman so she must stick to her lines; he is allowed to play around, to put his imprint on the work. It's not her world. She must compromise. Later, when they have to play the blowjob scene together, Rogen is directed to beckon Cherish's character over. He says: "Walk over here." At this point, Valerie, who has gone practically mad with worry about how to play this scene, and who is not only feeling the pressure of performing well in her first HBO show but struggling with the demeaning nature of the episode, elects to riff the following line, which naturally falls flat: "Walk? It's been a long day - why don't you just rape me?" The line is actually pretty good, but Rogen is horrified, and the director shouts cut. Valerie was clearly speaking out of exasperation, obviously venting her frustration, her impotence. The scene is reshot, eventually, with Valerie's head resting by Seth Rogen's crotch while he embarks on a stream of sexual comments, and the camera stays on her, showing how agonising her situation is to her.

Birdman, by contrast, is so ruled by the masculinity of its perspective that it finds three different ways to laugh at and minimise an attempted rape. In a performance of Riggan's play, the volatile and quirky actor played by Edward Norton attempts to have sex with the actor played by Naomi Watts, on stage and against her volition. When interrupted by another character in the play mid-scene, he stands up with a full-on erection, which the audience laughs at. The offence is minimised by the film as the characters are also partners within the film. Later, Naomi Watts complains about the attempted rape (not in those words) to a fellow actor, played by Andrea Riseborough, who reacts as follows: "That's hot!" Cue audience laughter. Whoa, thanks for the support, sister! Birdman was written by three men.

These are the derelictions of tone that make it difficult to view Riggan as an ambiguous character. Is his solipsism, his puffed up sense of himself, being critiqued in the film? His daughter, played by Emma Stone, tells him how small his life is, how little he matters, and the special effects sequences occasionally seem to paint him as a delusional pseud - but the film's tone seems to be saying something else with its insistent, rattling score, with its swirling and swooping camera, with its feverish close-ups and its metaphors. It makes too big a fuss of him for us to ignore him. Riggan does matter, it seems to say. Look at him - his struggle counts, it is your struggle, it is our struggle! A struggle to be noticed! By contrast, The Comeback is frighteningly, caustically aware of how little is at stake in Valerie's quest for fame, and of how much has been sacrificed for this folly. We see her lose her dignity, struggle with her loved ones, and all for what? To be recognised. Not in the sense of being celebrated, but in the sense of people being aware of her existence, at all. The Comeback has more heart than Birdman, so finally it gives us something to care about: it shows us Valerie's talent. In the end, her sacrifices have been so great, she has tried so hard, and she has an ability that she had never been able to tap before. The second series of The Comeback finds us rooting for her like never before, while remaining fully aware of the paucity of her dreams. Riggan is seemingly not talented, and no-one in Birdman has bothered to ask us to care about him: we have no backstory, few meaningful relationships, nothing to hang our emotions onto apart from the cast-iron interiority of this main man.

In a key scene in Birdman and a key episode in The Comeback Series 2, the star meets a journalist from the New York Times, who is set to write a make-or-break review of their forthcoming work. In Birdman, Riggan furiously confronts a theatre critic played by Lindsay Duncan who tells him for reasons not made especially clear that she will pan his play before she has even seen it. He rails at her, telling her to stick her review inside her 'tight ass'. The scene is too jarring to be read on one dimension: Duncan's character stands for all reviewers, all critics, all those intefering, who have no idea about the guts required to create, to put your art on the line. Of course she is female and of course she is old, and the fact that she reviews plays sight unseen is another low blow by Iñárritu, who makes clear his contempt for reviewery, for anything that might interfere with the nobility of his purpose. Valerie on the contrary learns from her reviewer - having worried about a negative review, she is surprised to hear, learn and then to believe that she has talent. The New York Times reviewer correctly identifies a rawness in Valerie's performance that she perceives as 'brave': when The Comeback satirises journalists it does so gently, showing that the term 'brave' only applies to female actors when they have surrendered the qualities that are meant to make them female; the whole reviewing industry does not have to be vilified in so doing.

At the end of Birdman an ambiguous sequence, a final flight of fancy closes the film. Riggan appears to have literally taken flight, and the last shot finds his daughter marvelling at his freedom, at the audacity of his escape. Valerie, in The Comeback, has to stay aground.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Lists of the Year: Films, Music and Honeys

FILMS OF THE YEAR

(I've asterisked the ones that haven't had a general UK release yet)

1. Leviathan
2. Eastern Boys
3. Under The Skin
4. Still The Water*
5. Girlhood*
6. Ida
7. Her
8. Horse Money*
9. Mommy*
10. The Possibilities Are Endless

Runners-up: The Tribe*, The Golden Dream, Tom At The Farm, Maps To The Stars
Best actor: Agata Kulesza for Ida
Biggest disappointment: Two Days, One Night/Inherent Vice*
Worst actor: Dorothy Atkinson for Mr Turner
Best scene: the extended party/house invasion in Eastern Boys
Worst scene: Dominic West’s appalling dance moves in Pride


MUSIC OF THE YEAR

NB: I did this list before D'Angelo beyoncé'd his album, but Black Messiah is obviously incredible and in my top ten if I could be bothered to rejig it.

Ten Albums:
St Vincent - St Vincent
Schoolboy Q - Oxymoron
Owen Pallett - In Conflict
Big Freedia - Just Be Free
Willie Watson - Folk Singer Vol. 1
Perfume Genius - Too Bright
Hurray For The Riff Raff - Small Town Heroes
Mac DeMarco - Salad Days
Your Old Droog - Your Old Droog
Azealia Banks - Broke With Expensive Taste

Ten Songs:
FKA Twigs: Two Weeks
Marissa Nadler: Firecrackers
Ghostface Killah & BADBADBADNOTGOOD: Six Degrees ft. Danny Brown
Young Thug: Eww Eww Eww remix feat. T.I. and Zuse
Vince Staples: Blue Suede
Perfume Genius: Queen
Sturgill Simpson: Turtles All The Way Down
Young Thug, A$AP Ferg, Freddie Gibbs: Old English
Jessica Pratt: Back, Baby
YG & Kendrick Lamar: Really Be (Smokin N Drinkin)

Playlist: Songs of the Year (on Spotify)

Special Mention for Earworms of the Year:

1. Too Many Cooks


2. Paxo's Gone, by Jon Snow




HONEYS OF THE YEAR

1. David Verdaguer, for the film 10,000 KM


2. Kayvan Novak, for being funny as well


3. No family is safe when he sashays - it's Perfume Genius


4. "He's-Gay-and-Absolutely-Massive" Award - Michael Sam


5. Football Twink Number One - James Rodriguez


6. Football Twink Number Two - Antoine Griezmann


7. Benjamin Booker, for alliteration and adorableness


8. Why-The-Hell-Are-You-Behind-The-Camera Award for Hot Director - Spike Jonze


9. Drag Queen Award - Trinity K. Bonet


 and



10. Sensitive Thug Award - Jack O'Connell




'Hang On, These Are Ladies But I'm Still Feeling... Something' Corner:

FKA Twigs


Gillian Anderson in The Fall


St Vincent




Friday, November 28, 2014

Lord Monckton and the 20,000 Lays

Hold your noses as we consider the latest hateful comments made by Christopher Walter Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, former advisor to Lady Thatcher (boo!), climate change denier (boo!), homophobe (boo!) and inventor of the Eternity puzzle (bo… hang on, what?).

We’ll come on to the Eternity puzzle later, because it’s incredible. First, let’s look and laugh at Chris’s article for WorldNet Daily earlier this week, in which the hereditary peer bravely tilts at the windmill of homosexuality and posits that gays are evil because of AIDS and sodomy and drugs and look he just doesn’t like it, OK? He also spends a lolsome paragraph fretting about what LGBTQ stands for and decides to call all non-straight people QWERTYs. Ziiiiing! That’ll show us!

Let it be noted that, as usual, Monckton’s veal is with gay men - not, say, lesbians. The locus for this particular fear in straight men is, as ever, the ol’ back door: the homophobic man does not fear or hate, or even consider the existence of, lesbians, because their sexual activities do not dangerously reframe male sexuality. Above all the homophobic straight man fears (and if you know your Sigmund you’ll dig that this means he is inexorably, spine-tinglingly allured by) the idea of being penetrated. This gleeful panic oozes from each of Moncko’s sentences, not least his hilarious bracket that begins: “just ask any proctologist”. Cheers mate, will do.

Never mind that the people performing the vast majority of all anal acts in the world are straight and that gay men are thrillingly able to dream up heaps more things to do with each other besides common-or-garden buggery: Christopher must be heard. He is the inventor of the Eternity puzzle, after all, and who here can say that he, she or ze (I don’t know what these QWERTYs will dream up next!) has earned such a platform for yelling at clouds?

The Eternity puzzle, Wikipedia tells us, is a tiling game that “consists of filling a large almost regular dodecagon with 209 irregularly shaped smaller polygon pieces of the same color. All the pieces [are] made from a combination of equilateral triangles and half-triangles, with each piece having the same total area of 6 of those triangles, and between seven and eleven sides.” (Quick aside: is the game supposed to be fun?) Anyway: Monckton put the puzzle out in 1999 and it sold a staggering 500,000 copies. The peer announced when the game was released that the first person to solve the puzzle within three years would receive a million smackers - half from his own pocket and half from private insurers. What happened next is fun: two mathematicians solved it within a year and Monckton had to mortgage his house to pay them. The Schadenfreude is strong with this one.

Sadly, this was not the first or last time that Monckton would be personally defeated by science. As a loud and persistent denier of climate change, his non-lordship must now be well used to having his fanciful suppositions patiently refuted by specialists with tonnes of corroborated evidence to back up their claims. Monckton has written a number of climate change -denying, non-peer-reviewed papers for the Science and Public Policy Institute, of which he is a Policy Director. The Science and Public Policy Institute is a hawkish organisation staffed, as far as I can work out, predominantly by Monckton, with input from such scientific advisors as Robert Carter, who in 2012 was found to have been paid a fee to advance ideas sceptical of climate change by commercial organisations with a vested interest in pumping out gases willy-nilly. The Science and Public Policy institute has also made a film, ‘Apocalypse? No!’, to rebut Al Gore’s film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. The film is patented gobbledygook, but it’s got a funny title so I thought I’d mention it.

On, then, to Monckton’s latest claim that looks set to be tragically vanquished by science. “Official survey after official survey,” he bleats, without providing links to these documents, “had shown that homosexuals had an average of 500-1,000 partners in their sexually active lifetime, and that some had as many as 20,000. One wonders how they found time for anything else.” Indeed. Perhaps he thinks the Q stands for quick. I’m no Alan Turing but I calculate that I would have to get jiggy with 1.55 men a day for the next 35 years to reach my target of 20K lays. Don’t worry, I have  evidence to back up my assertion: (19,912/35)/365 = 1.55866927593.

Here’s the thing though. I’m starting to feel sorry for Lord Monckton, and anguished by his perpetual seppuku with the sword of Science. So I hereby make this vow: if he is willing to put up a million pound prize for the first man to reach 20,000 discrete homosexual bangs in a lifetime, I will apply the tenets of science to my quest to become that man and vindicate him. He can draw up the terms of the challenge: for instance, oral doesn’t count, and all my partners have to have their separate identity verified by a panel of face specialists. There will have to be an independent supervisor present during each distinct act of intercourse, obviously, to ensure that I’m not making up my figures. I’ll draw up a plan to systematically meet those numbers, with weekly, monthly and yearly targets, and arrange for my annual results to be audited by a committee whose findings will be made available to all in an open source document. Only then, when Monckton is 97 and I have exhausted myself getting down on the good foot and doing the bad thing with a minimum of one man every day for the last 3.5 decades, then, at last, he will be able to claim superior knowledge and tell the gay men of the world “I told you so”, as he sells up his last property to hand me my moolah. That’s if the world still exists by then of course, because have you heard the bad news about greenhouse gases?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Dulce et decorum choc-fest

The Sainsbury’s Christmas ad has arrived, and you will no doubt already be aware that it takes for its setting the lone heartwarming episode in a war that decimated a generation of men one hundred years ago. The football game that united enemy sides on Christmas Day of 1914 was a short-lived but touching truce whose legend has grown stronger over the years, even inspiring a syrupy film in 2005. In the Sainsbury’s advert, two wide-eyed young men in the twinky vein of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon slip each other an illicit treat on Christmas Day, the memory of which will remain with them for some time after both sides have resumed their conflict, perhaps even up until their death by spade, grenade or bayonet the next day or year. The advert doesn’t say so of course, but we are rather led to hope that these dewy-faced teens are not among the reported 888,246 British troops or the estimated 2,037,000 Germans who were murdered in the war. Chances are that they would have been, obviously, but don’t let that spoil your pigs in blankets.

Gathering around our computers - and later this evening our televisions - to witness the annual unveiling of the new festive films literally devised with the intention of making an audience of consumers spend money, can’t help but have a touch of the Brave New Worlds about it. Aldous Huxley, an old Etonian, somehow escaped conscription in 1916 when he was twenty, meaning that he did not become one of the 2.2% of the British population to die in the First World War, and was therefore able to write Brave New World in 1932 - for which we give thanks. Brave New World, as you know, tells of a hideous, scarcely imaginable dystopia in which individualism is shunned and the supine populace is mass-manipulated by moving images. The book’s future world takes as its starting point the creation of the Model T automobile by Henry Ford in the early 20th Century. Ford, in the novel, is revered as a near-deity for having perfected the assembly line, and with it enabled mass production of cheap goods. For which we give thanks.

Two people who also revered Ford, back in our own brave world, were Walt Disney and Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonalds. Writing about the pair in a London Review of Books article on Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, James Meek notes that the two men served in the same military unit in World War One and observes:

“The mode of operation in the trenches fascinated both Kroc and Disney: the assembly line. Everyone – the ammunition worker, the machine-gunner, the infantryman – played their small, repetitive, unskilled role with as much speed and efficiency as they could muster. (...) The trenches were the ultimate assembly line: the dehumanised troops not only manned it but constituted the raw material.”

It’s so grotesque that it’s almost thrilling to consider that perspicacious people might have learnt valuable lessons from the First World War about how to run a wildly successful business, by subsuming individuality and using people with few alternatives in order to build an empire. But Kroc and Disney would not be the only ones to make a buck from the Great War.


What were these “dehumanised troops”, including the unnamed lads in the Sainsburys advert, fighting for? Here’s a clue: you need lots of it to get through Christmas. That’s right, money! If the self-appointed pitbull of the British Empire, Michael Gove ever reads this post he will no doubt bite me on the arse for saying this, but the First World War which we celebrate - sorry, commemorate - this year could hardly have had less noble origins. To recap: everyone in Europe had been preparing for a massive old war for two or three decades before 1914 - since, pretty much, the Industrial Revolution. The elites in charge of the old Empires - French, British, Austro-Hungarian - were involved in a huge and probably quite fun game of weapons-chicken from the late 19th Century onwards, and were perpetually having itchy little skirmishes with each other from then up until the First World War, such as the hilariously petty Pig War of 1906-08 between Austria and Serbia. The commercial and imperial interests of the so-termed Great Nations had to contend with a rising nationalism across the continent, meaning that sooner or later conflict would occur.

Michael Gove got into hot water with historians earlier this year after advancing absurd and unsupported plans for the commemoration of the Great War’s centenary. How we mark the occasion - from the display of poppies at the Tower of London to this Sainsbury’s advert - is actually quite important. Our view of the First World War is important too: were the soldiers willing heroes, embarked on a vital crusade, or were they unwitting and helpless heroes, sacrificing their lives for a futility? Notwithstanding his hilarious demotion earlier this year, Gove is a member of a Tory government that has delighted in taking money from the poor since not winning the election in 2010. So it makes sense that he would want to paint WW1 as a noble and unavoidable foray by Britain and its allies to quash the dangerous extremism of Germany, rather than a petty and despair-inducingly needless conflict of the ruling class’s devising in order to protect its financial interests. You have only to look at David Cameron now to see someone engaged in a similarly hotblooded and misconceived tussle with Europe - an act of financial and political self-interest masquerading as “the right thing to do”. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

The irony of a film about the soldiers’ Christmas Day truce being used to flog products to a soma-quaffing mass audience one hundred years on is so poetic I could weep. The one day when the power of the people called a brief end to the violence and selfishness of the ruling regimes, and they met each other and spoke to each other and played together, is the new hook for a commercial for an enormous corporation. Here you are, little people - here’s your chocolate.

Friday, November 7, 2014

I'm Telling You Why - John Lewis Is Coming To Town

The John Lewis advert has finally aired, marking, at long last, the start of the long and thrilling mudslide towards Christmas. Laddies and gentlewomen, permission has now been granted from on high to start planning your Secret Santas, begarlanding your work computers with tinsel, and anxiously giving your parents notice that you’ve only been able to obtain a few days’ leave so will be arriving early on Christmas Eve and leaving late on Boxing Day you’re afraid, there’s nothing you can do about it.

I don’t know about you, but as soon as I saw the new John Lewis Christmas advert (I’m lying, I haven’t seen it), I immediately wired J.L. ten quid via PayPal in return for nothing at all, merely because they do such a great job of just being themselves. And I bunged a crisp new Jane Austen to a penguins charity, too, because I loved Elijah Wood in Happy Feet.

Don’t you just love money? Sorry, I mean chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Just the smell of cold hard cash and cloves is enough to make me well up around this time of year, reminding me of all the Christmases I’ve spent putting a brave face on my disappointment at my parents’ financial expenditure. I still remember all those cheery Christmases singing songs in the sitting-room, enjoying the sight of tipsy grown-ups loosening their adultness for an evening, smelling the pine and delighting in the crinkle of the sweet-wrappers by the fireplace, while fuming with rage that my cousin got a Game Boy. The My Little Pony that my sister never got; the year when we couldn’t afford to heat the house for more than 4 hours a day; the quiver-lipped incomprehension at getting a tangerine in the bottom of your stocking to honour some obscure tradition, when citrus fruit is ten a penny for god’s sake: these are the memories I will cherish for all time

It seems apt that, under the coalition, the unveiling of a literal advertisement should have come to mark the annual descent into Christmas insanity. When anything heart-warming, beloved or truly necessary can be co-opted for financial gain and therefore has been or is about to be, there is a ring of poetry to us running around screaming about wide-eyed infants and Antarctic fowl in a feature whose every element has been devised, teased, workshopped and focus-grouped in order to squeeze money from our willing hands. Can we really have so completely forgotten the words of Saint Mariah, in her festive parable ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’? “I don’t need to hang my stocking there, upon the fireplace,” Mariah reminds us, in her wisdom. “Santa Claus won’t make me happy with a toy on Christmas day.”

Indeed. I’m certain I don’t need to remind everyone that Christmas was invented by Coca-Cola and that Santa Claus was trademarked by the company as far back as 1831. The reason Father Christmas wears a red robe in modern depictions of him, in fact, is a nod to the blood spilled in the alleged murders of trade union members by Coca-Cola in Guatemala and Colombia. And Santa rhymes with Fanta. Coincidence?


How I long for us to get back to the real roots of Christmas and celebrate the passing of another agricultural year with a pagan orgy of ale, song, the one piece of meat you’ll eat all year, and vigorous intra-familial sexings. And alms, of course. Don’t forget alms. Have we already gone too far in the wrong direction, throwing money at a problem that doesn’t exist? In this era of grotesque financial inequality, and with climate change arranging things such that we’ll all be dead in 70 years’ time and it isn’t even cold in November anymore, I propose that we relocate Christmas to late February and call it Yule or ‘non-denominational festive time’, or something even more apt to get up the noses of Top Gear watchers. We would then devote the erstwhile Christmas period to a great festive protest, staying at home and singing and donating to worthwhile causes, while merrily kneeing Big Business one and watching our unelected government cower in fear at the great, holy power of the masses.