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You need more than rugby to bury Apartheid
'One Team, One Country.' The team was the Springboks; the country was South Africa. The slogan was the brainwave of Edward Griffiths, who was CEO of the South African rugby union and communications director of the South Africa rugby team during the 1995 World Cup.
On 24 June 1995, 43million South Africans came together to watch the Springboks beat the New Zealand All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup final at the Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg. Invictus, a new film directed by Clint Eastwood and based on John Carlin's book Playing The Enemy, celebrates this feat as the crowning moment in Nelson Mandela's campaign to forge a new, democratic South Africa. Non-South Africans may wonder: why rugby?
For South Africans, rugby is a big deal. It was the sport of the hated ruling Afrikaners and as much an icon of Apartheid as the orange-white- blue flag of the old regime or its national anthem 'Die Stem'. No black person would be associated with the sport on principle. Football was the game of black South Africa, while Indians, like my family, played cricket. Everyone (including all the prisoners incarcerated with Mandela on Robben Island) always supported the away-team against South Africa. My mother still supports England against South Africa old habits die hard.
As much as rugby was hated by the black majority, it inspired a religious fervour in the Afrikaners. They had suffered under the sports boycott that prevented South Africa from competing internationally in the one sport it excelled at. Mandela's eureka moment was to recognise that if he could win the hearts and minds of the Afrikaners through their one great passion, rugby, then governing the new South Africa would be a great deal easier. With the 1995 Rugby World Cup being held in South Africa, Mandela saw an ideal opportunity to unite the country. But winning over the black masses to his PR campaign was not going to be easy.
The campaign around the Rugby World Cup reflected the realpolitik of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). During the struggle to overthrow Apartheid, the ANC had allied itself with the Communist Party (SACP) and the SACP's rhetoric was far more effective at mobilising the black masses than the elitist middle-class nationalism of the ANC leadership. But in power, after the first democratic elections of 1994 following Mandela's release from prison in 1990, the ANC was eager to shake off its communist and working-class allies and build new alliances with the middle classes and capitalist elites in South Africa. What better means than rugby to achieve this new coalition?
Invictus, Latin for 'unconquered', is the title of a short poem by the British poet William Ernest Henley. Mandela used to recite it to himself while in prison. Eastwood's film focuses on the build-up to the World Cup final and the developing bond between Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) and Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman). Damon is a convincing Afrikaner, while Freeman, who has been Oscar-nominated for his performance, is an uncanny look-a-like for Mandela. He's so impressive that I can forgive the odd lapse in pronunciation. It doesn't matter that he says 'perry' instead of 'petty' and 'Springbucks' instead of 'Springboks', because in every other way he is very credible.
Alongside this pivotal relationship, there are some lighter comedic moments, too, like the understandably indignant reactions of the newly appointed black bodyguards who find themselves having to work alongside those who once protected FW de Klerk's Apartheid government. The white guards talk rugby; the blacks don't. They are puzzled by Mandela's newfound interest in the sport, especially when he overrides a decision by the militant government sports department to change the name of the team from the hated Springboks to the more neutral Proteas.
Why take such a stubborn stand over such a petty issue, Mandela's secretary asks him? Mandela responds that if he can't face up to hard decisions now, then he never will. This recognition of the difficulty of forging a new alliance underpins the worldwide respect and admiration for Mandela.
Towards the end of the film, a Boeing 747 flies low over Johannesburg; its thunderous roar terrifying the 62,000 in the stadium waiting for the big rugby final to start. Then, when the plane's underside with the words 'Good Luck Bokke' painted on it in giant black letters, become visible, terror turns to delight. Just before kick-off, Mandela walks on to the field to meet the Springboks team. 'Nelson, Nelson, Nelson ' call the crowds ecstatically, and the chants are shown reverberating in living rooms and pubs around South Africa.
I left the cinema feeling a little teary but optimistic, too. It may be because as a South African living abroad at the time, I wasn't there when the masses celebrated Mandela's release; I wasn't there when the nation queued to vote in the first democratic election; and I missed this last euphoric moment when rugby briefly united a country.
Today, it all feels like a long time ago. The assertion of ethnic rights, the desperate protests in the squatter camps and the squabble over resources in a period of global recession have seen to that. Will this year's football World Cup achieve something similar? Or is the belief that sport can bring unity and purpose to a divided country nothing but a chimera, like the rainbow that disappears when the sun is no longer shining?
Haneke: films for middle-class masochists
Austrian film director Michael Haneke's latest, The White Ribbon: A German Children's Story, has already won the Palme d'Or. The chances are it'll pick up Best Foreign Film at next month's Oscars, too. Critics have heaped praise upon it, and art-house audiences have flocked to see it. You see, there's just something about Haneke's work that culture vultures can't stick their beaks into quick enough.
Which, in its way, is puzzling. Not because Haneke is not a talented filmmaker. Far from it, in fact. From their stately structures to the languorous, deliberately disconcerting extended takes, his films are always painstakingly crafted. No detail is accidental, no thing unthought. No, what's puzzling about Haneke's popularity amongst those who take their films nearly as seriously as they take themselves is that his films are so desolating. Almost every review of Haneke's work gushes with the same adjectives: disturbing, disquieting, discomfiting. Haneke's films don't please, they unsettle. They are the artistic equivalent of middle-class masochism.
Funny Games, for instance, was the heartwarming tale of a nice bourgeois family tortured to death by a couple of boys in tennis kit. The Piano Teacher was the groin-girding story of a nice bourgeois society driving a libidinous pianist to torture her genitals. Hidden was an endearing portrait of a nice bourgeois couple tortured to distraction by post- colonial guilt, and unfathomable surveillance. But it's not just the content that is so dismal. Formally, too, his films resist pleasure. Almost without fail they refuse to resolve themselves into anything resembling a conclusion. This is hardly surprising: agency in his work, whether that of psychotic kids or camcorder-wielding stalkers, is without reason. Bad things happen, that's all we on Earth can know.
The White Ribbon: A German Children's Story is no exception to Haneke's rule of thumb build something dispiriting and the plaudits will come. Set in a German village on the eve of the First World War, it centres around several inexplicable acts of cruelty and misadventure that perplex the small community. The local doctor is sent tumbling from his horse by a trip wire; a female labourer has a fatal accident at the saw mill; the son of the village baron is found hanging upside down in a barn, his backside bleeding following a severe beating. Misfortune and malice continue to afflict the locals. And they, along with us, have no real idea, but plenty of suspicions, as to who is causing this.
The chief suspects are ostensibly the village children, a ghostly bunch that congregate near the houses of victims. Whether this is out of concern or cruelty we are never sure. But Haneke has a deeper motive than creating some Turn of the Screw-style ambiguity around pallid kids, or even a whodunit, with no who and little dunit. His concern, rather, seems to be with a society that breeds cruelty.
Consequently, the village here functions as Haneke's view of society as a whole. It's a study in psychopathology, a portrait of a community in which cruelty is mundane and evil banal. Haneke seems to want us to see this village as an incubator for some coming monstrosity. Little wonder that every relationship is packed full of latent violence, each interactions pregnant with menace. And given the film's pre-First World War German setting, we can be in little doubt that Haneke intends us to see where and when the seeds of fascism were sown.
The problem with all this is that it is so thoroughly hackneyed. The principle unit of socialisation here the family is portrayed as little more than a Freudian caricature, which, given that Haneke studied psychology in Vienna, is perhaps apt. Still, that doesn't make it any more edifying an insight. From the doctor 'fingering' his 14-year-old daughter to the pastor tying his son's arms to the bed to stop him from masturbating, abuse and repression is the familial norm here. And so it must be if Haneke is to reduce the brutal extremes of Nazism to a psychological sickness generated in the bosom of the family.
Perverting the great psychoanalyst himself, one child, Erna, asks her teacher 'if you dream of something, really dream of something, can it come true?'. Her dream? The torture and near blinding of the local disabled kid. The suggestion is clear. The routine repression, often cruel, always damaging, is creating psychotic dreamwork, and dreams here, as the eventual torture and near blinding of the local disabled kid show, do become real.
To Haneke, this is just how it is 'the truth is obscene', he said in a recent interview. All he's doing is making us see. And what a vision it is. In Haneke's films, human society is sunken, rank, a place where mass culture is dumb, where people, turned on and tuned off by TV, are cruel and complacent, and where families will, for time immemorial, f*** you up. Socialisation here is virtually synonymous with corruption.
Why is this vision so popular? What is it about this crass, aloof moralising that is so attractive? The answer lies in the question. In Haneke, every countercultural prejudice, from the perils of consumerism and mainstream entertainment to the denunciation of the family, is given a sophisticated artistic form. Never has liberal snobbery looked so clever.
A Single Man (2009)
A Single Man: all style, no substance?
Tom Ford's directorial debut A Single Man, based on the 1964 Christopher Isherwood novel, is a thing of beauty. From a lingering shot of a perfectly mascaraed eyelash to a languorous close-up of full, plump lips dragging protractedly on a cigarette, Eros makes his presence felt everywhere.
It's not just the human form itself that is so enchanting and enchanted here. Objects, too, whether a car dashboard or man's suit, ooze sex appeal. Unfortunately, it is this aspiration to the sublime, this self-consciously artful approach, not to mention the too- mentionable fact that Ford is a fashion designer, that has led some critics to wonder if there's too much surface in this movie. A Single Man looks wonderful, they say, but it glosses its content, it loses its depth. Even the excellent Colin Firth slim to the point of ripped looks just too damn good.
Which is strange, you'd think, given the depressed subject matter. Set in Los Angeles in 1962, A Single Man is a day in the life of aging English professor George Falconer (Colin Firth), who's struggling to come to terms with the death of his partner Jim (Matthew Goode) in a car crash. It is ostensibly a portrait of a grieving man, one whose mourning for the man he loves and has now lost is stunted and repressed. After all, you can't mourn for a love which, even in the early 1960s, still dare not speak its name. He wasn't even invited to the funeral.
But while A Single Man is a sometimes moving study of living after the end of one's reason for living, its scope is broader. The Western world, too, seems at its end. In the background, the Cuban missile crisis is playing itself out, a symbol, it seems, of a world poised on the edge of self-annihilation. But the sense of exhaustion, the sense of a world consuming itself, goes deeper. While there might well be a postwar boom, with cars and TVs and dental products available everywhere, there is little in the way of euphoria. Rather there is a sense that something is being lost, that the best which has been thought and said in the world, the Great Tradition, the liberal arts, is being lost to the unfeeling, virtueless world of commerce and consumerism.
Not for nothing is our single man here a professor of English, a voice of that disappearing world of high culture. Assessing his current students, Falconer notes that they 'aspire to nothing more than a corporate job' and raising families of 'Coke-drinking, TV-watching children'.
If Falconer himself is struggling to see a reason for going on, for living after the end, A Single Man is also struggling to see much future for humanity as a whole. In the portentous words of Kenny, Falconer's flirty, arch student, 'Death is the future'.
But if the death drive in a decadent early 60s California seems to be in the ascendance in A Single Man a fact rather unsubtly emphasised by the inclusion in Ford's screenplay of the question of whether Falconer will shoot himself it also explains why the film seems so concerned with surfaces, with enchanting the appearance of things. To death, to Thanatos, A Single Man counterposes life, Eros. He might be stranded in a dying, muffled world, but beauty is constantly arresting and taking possession of Falconer. While a colleague harangues him about nuclear war, Falconer's attention is caught by two men playing tennis, their naked chests and stomachs glistening in the autumnal heat; while a secretary is informing him that someone has asked for his address, Falconer is drawn to her eyes, her mouth, her hair. A Single Man sublimates. It gives to the everyday an allure, a beauty which, just occasionally, will take Falconer away from his dream of death.
But only occasionally. Because it can't stop time. Throughout A Single Man the loudly ticking clock is a symbol of the harsh, unsentimental, all-too-rationalising modern world. It is also the herald of the inevitable. Little wonder that in A Single Man, that which is not a product of human thought and society, that which is not rational namely, feeling and sentiment is idealised. 'Sometimes I have moments of absolute clarity', remarks Falconer. 'I can feel, rather than think; the world feels so fresh. It's as though it just came into existence.' The desire to stop time, to have the 'now' forever is as suicidally death-laden as the world that is exhausting culture, killing feeling. But in A Single Man this decadent posture becomes an ideology. It urges a plunge literally so, given the underwater body imagery into a world of pure sensation, of pure, thoughtless physicality. In other words, an immersion in surfaces.
A Single Man bears an uncanny resemblance to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. But Mann's novella was an ironic portrait of art in the era of its impossibility. Things were too easily disenchanted; there was no elevated meaning to be embodied in art, religious or otherwise. Instead, beauty was too easily reducible to sexuality, the sublime to sublimated homosexuality. A Single Man, however, refuses to break the spell; it refuses to yield to the temptation to reveal the sex-and-sweat root of its aesthetic for all the homosexual longing, there is no sex in this vision.
Instead, the vision, despite its subject matter, is almost uplifting, almost affirmative there is life after the end, it seems to say. 'I had a hunch you were a romantic', Kenny tells Falconer. And so he must remain in this beautifully superficial film.
Dirty Oil (2009)
What's wrong with exploiting nature?
Michael Moore and Al Gore have a lot to answer for. They popularised the campaigning documentary, with films such as Roger and Me, Fahrenheit 9/11 and An Inconvenient Truth, and now new docs are being pumped out faster than Saudi crude. And 'crude' is a decent summation of the ideas contained in most of them.
Dirty Oil says this has 'staggering' environmental costs. The extraction process is messy, leaving huge pools of 'tailings', a mix of water and sand with an unhealthy dose of some nasty, bitumen-related chemicals. The film suggests that the pollution from the extraction process threatens the health of local people and wildlife. Worse, the carbon emissions from this 'dirty' oil are helping to push the world towards catastrophic climate change.
The film opens by asking Americans where they think their oil comes from. 'Saudi Arabia' and 'the Middle East' are the common answers. Wrong. As a Canadian journalist notes: 'For the past seven years, Canada has been the number one supplier of oil to the United States We are the new Saudi Arabia.' The press notes for Dirty Oil actually state that: 'It is a little known fact that America imports the majority of its oil from Canada and not the Middle East.' But this is nonsense. The biggest single source of America's oil is America itself; 36 per cent of US crude is produced domestically. It's a far cry from the glory days when the US produced all its own oil, but it does put into perspective the idea that the US is dependent on unstable dictatorships to keep chugging along, and rather makes a mockery of the idea that the Iraq War was really a war for oil.
After this dubious start, obviously aimed at convincing Americans that This Stuff Really Matters, Dirty Oil takes us to the new oil boom town of Fort McMurray, where a 26-year-old worker describes how he manages to earn $100,000 per year: driving a truck that's the size of an average house. The truck is 30 feet wide, 30 feet high and 50 feet long. We are encouraged to fret about these monsters tearing up the landscape. I just thought how cool it would be to drive one. Surely the ability to organise such a huge operation you need to shift about two tonnes of oil sand to get one barrel of oil, and yet the area produces 1.3million barrels per day is worthy of a little awe?
Dirty Oil claims that oil-sand extraction is damaging the health of local people. Down river in the town of Fort Chipewyan, Dr John O'Connor claims that he has seen an extraordinarily high number of rare cancers in a community of indigenous people who rely on fishing for food. However, far from investigating his claims so the film tells us the health authorities have brought a case against him for causing 'undue alarm'. The film suggests this is a case of the little man being stomped on by the big corporation. So depressed is Dr O'Connor by these proceedings that he eventually leaves the area and returns to Nova Scotia, broken by a big conspiracy against a whistle-blower.
The big claim of the film is right there in the title: this is 'dirty oil'. The extraction process requires a lot of energy from natural gas, which means that the whole process produces three times as many greenhouse gas emissions as conventional oil production. However, some perspective is required. The majority of carbon emissions involved with creating and using petroleum products comes from burning them in vehicle engines. Taking that into account, petrol derived from oil sands in Canada produces only 15 per cent more carbon emissions than petrol from conventional sources.
Even if we accept the wilder claims about what climate change will mean for humanity, the answer is surely to move to an economy based on low- carbon technologies, not to fret about particular sources of fuel. Alberta's oil boom will end when we no longer need the oil. That means developing forms of transport that use electricity not oil, and power sources like wind, solar, geothermal and most importantly nuclear. These technologies could have benefits that go well beyond reducing carbon emissions. But they need time to mature and be rolled out. We need economic growth to pay for these things and keeping the oil flowing is crucial to that.
While Dirty Oil suggests that we shift to renewable energy sources, it also provides a childish view of the relationship between big business and the rest of society. This is 'big people picking on little people and assuming that they can get away with it', says a spokesperson for the green group the Natural Resources Defense Council. The film also suggests that it is somehow our individual greed which, by creating demand for this 'dirty' oil, is screwing up the planet. But there's nothing wrong with wanting to be better off; the whole world should enjoy the living standards of the average American. Cheap, reliable energy is absolutely essential for that. Alberta's oil boom is set to continue for many years to come.
Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)
The Miles Davis of anti-capitalism
Michael Moore has a pretty good knack for making documentaries that capture the spirit of their times. Bowling for Columbine (2002), for instance, tapped into the feverish gun control debate in America; Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) was released in the aftermath of the disastrous Iraq War of 2003; Sicko (2007) prefigured the recent US debate on state- run healthcare. In the midst of a serious economic crisis, Capitalism: A Love Story appears to be a timely investigation into bank bailouts, bankruptcies and the return of mass unemployment. So why do all of Moore's stunts, dashed-off analysis and gloomy conclusions in this film feel so tired and out of date?
To begin with, Moore makes an apposite, albeit superficial, comparison between the dying days of Rome and contemporary America. He introduces some clips from what appears to be an old educational reel titled Life in Ancient Rome, which he then juxtaposes with more recent totems of American power, including the Metropolitan Opera House at New York's Lincoln Center draped in the Stars and Stripes. He makes the point that America's long-standing support for the free market has gone the same way as countless failed businesses: from unqualified confidence to directionless decadence. He proceeds to flesh out the scale of corruption in modern American society, using human-interest stories to elicit viewers' anger.
Indeed, his well-worn directorial devices in this latest film reveal his limitations. As in his previous films, Moore inhabits the role of the burly, conscientious documentary-maker on a mission, who nevertheless lets people's stories speak for themselves. He intercuts these testimonials with a morass of kitschy stock footage and B-movie warnings that what we're about to see is 'truly one of the most unusual movies ever made' (except it isn't). The scenes where Moore battles it out with stern-faced corporate security guards and tries to access the high-seats of capitalism through silly stunts have a groaning over-familiarity to them.
As in his previous films, Moore reveals an absolute aversion to the notion of personal responsibility. For example, he blames Ronald Reagan's policy of expanding the availability of credit for a lot of the current economic mess. The film offers the rather lame notion that no individual could possibly have been expected to understand the terms and conditions of the loans they signed their names to and that they were coerced into doing it. But in taking this approach Moore in fact reduces autonomous individuals to hapless victims. As a result, the burden of private debt is all the fault of rapacious financial institutions, riding roughshod over ignorant, ordinary Americans. He then borrows some divine authority from the Catholic Church by simply labelling capitalism as fundamentally 'evil'. Now that's telling 'em.
This is where Capitalism: A Love Story really falls flat. Far from analysing the subprime meltdown, the credit crunch or the slump in productivity in the West, Moore avoids any coherent argument about how and why the crisis happened or why the consequences were so grave. Instead, he blurs and improvises one ill-conceived idea after another, becoming the Miles Davis of moralistic anti-capitalism.
Moore is on firmer ground when he isn't strong-arming security guards or jabbering incoherent theories. The more effective scenes are the straightforward interviews with people who have lost out to unscrupulous employers. In one scene, he visits a widower whose wife was unknowingly insured by her company a dubious practice called 'dead peasant insurance' which earned the company quite a substantial amount of money when the woman died. Like many of the stories Moore explores, dead peasant insurance might not be massively revelatory, but it is effective in generating outrage and empathy amongst viewers.
In many ways, it is precisely this kind of posturing that makes Moore's films such hits with liberals on both sides of the pond. In Moore's universe you can appear outraged, concerned and engaged with the world without having to fight for or justify a better alternative. Moore's conclusion, for all the leftist rhetoric in the film's title, suggests that the politics of TINA - There Is No Alternative - is very much alive and well in the US.
Capitalism features strikingly retrograde ideas dressed up as faux radicalism. It's all very well to bemoan 'selfishness' and 'greed' in modern society, but when Moore conflates rational self-interest with anti-social behaviour and disregard for others, he is justifying clampdowns on basic freedoms and rights. By equating individual freedom only with degradation and amorality, he is going some way to legitimising the culture of unfreedom prevalent in both the US and the UK.
Even more disgracefully, he borrows a quote from Roosevelt to suggest that people who are unemployed 'are the stuff of which dictatorships are made'. Raising the spectre of the masses voting for demagogues has long been the conceit of political elites. Moore is foolhardy for repeating it here, especially when the idea of limiting mass democracy looks set to define the new decade.
After two decades of filmmaking, Moore's methods and arguments are essentially the same, but the impact of his films has grown ever weaker. Indeed, Capitalism repeats many of the same tricks and devices used in Moore's 1989 film Roger & Me, about the effect of General Motors downsizing in Flint, Michigan. But whereas that film appeared fresh and amusing 20 years ago, the same shtick harassing security guards, staging publicity stunts outside corporate offices - is now wearisome, irritating and rather contrived.
The main weakness of Capitalism, though, is that Moore doesn't quite know what to say. In his better films, like Bowling For Columbine and Sicko, his persona as affable, single-minded ordinary bloke was effective, but here the subject matter - capitalism - seems too big and complex for him.
When one Wall Street employee asks Moore 'Why don't you stop making films?', it was one of the few sentiments in the film I could sympathise with.
Sons of Cuba (2009)
Sons of Cuba: a knockout doc
How do you deal with the pressures of competing in sport at a high level? What sacrifices would you make and how would you cope with defeat, knowing that your best wasn't good enough? And what if you had to confront all that when you're not even 12 years old?
These are the questions the young boys at the Havana City Boxing Academy grapple with in Andrew Lang's debut documentary Sons of Cuba. The academy is one of a number dotted around Cuba where the pick of the nation's boys live, train and study, all hoping to emulate the dozens of previous amateur world and Olympic medallists including three-time Olympic champions Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon who have represented the Caribbean island. With a population of just 11million, the country's success in boxing is extraordinary, built on a Stalinist prioritisation of sport as a way of providing a positive image to the world at large.
There are peculiar factors involved in Cuba's ascendancy in the world of boxing. Firstly, there is the drilling of children from an early age to become elite sports stars, typical of Soviet-style societies. For Cuba, the sport of choice has been boxing. Secondly, there is the advantage that the country's best fighters remain in the amateur ranks, so they can compete in the Olympics and the world championships again and again, while in most other countries amateur success is merely a stepping stone to the professional ranks. For example, Britain's Olympic Wunderkind from 2004, Amir Khan, lost out on gold to the veteran Cuban Mario Kindelan, but has since gone on to claim a version of the world light- welterweight title as a professional (though he defeated Kindelan in a rematch in what would prove to be Khan's last amateur fight).
Cuba is still scarred by buildings that are falling apart and beyond repair, while the much-admired Fifties cars that sparsely populate the country's roads are unreliable, kept in use out of sheer necessity. Even today, Cubans struggle to get from A to B, queuing at street corners to hitch a ride on anything that has wheels and that is going vaguely in their direction.
The making of Sons of Cuba coincides with other traumas for Cubans. The ill-health of their long-time leader Fidel Castro, who announces he is stepping aside in favour of his brother, Raul. With the constant sense of threat from the US and the privations of the Special Period, the loss of their leader only adds to Cubans' sense of uncertainty. For the boys in the boxing club, this uncertainty is compounded by the defection of some of the country's leading fighters to the US, something seen as the worst kind of betrayal.
Yet for all the peculiarities of the Cuban situation, Sons of Cuba deals with many very universal themes, too. For example, the relationship between Cristian and his father is an intriguing one. Luis Felipe is clearly a fairly arrogant man who has fallen on hard times and lives on past glories. He is pretty hard on his son, who he believes will never be as good as him. Yet when he finally realises that his son might be good enough to be a champion, too, he is reduced to tears of joy. If you do catch Sons of Cuba, bring the Kleenex; behind the machismo, this is a deeply touching story.
If there is a problem with Sons of Cuba, it is the nagging feeling we've been here before. The low-budget documentary, following the lives of people through a familiar narrative, which ends with some kind of triumph over adversity. A good and equally entertaining example from last year was Sounds Like Teen Spirit, the story of children trying to win the Junior Eurovision Song Contest. Of course, a director needs to find some kind of way of pulling the material together to make sense of it all, but there is the danger that the resulting story is a little trite.
But if the triumph-over-adversity story arc is a little too familiar, the joy of Sons of Cuba is in the detail, and in the very human range of emotions that the boys and their mentors go through along the way.
Crazy Heart (2009)
Crazy Heart: another Hollywood sermon
Last Sunday, Jeff Bridges won an Oscar for his performance as Bad Blake, an ageing country-and-western star, in Crazy Heart. For me, about three- quarters into the film, which has a good soundtrack and some fine acting, I got the sinking feeling that I'd been tricked. A pretty good movie had turned into a grating sermon.
Most movies about musicians show them trying to deal with pressures through booze and drugs, and inevitably self-destructing. But my own experience as a touring musician for 30 years is that while I've seen a few burnouts, they're a small minority. The smart ones quit their destructive habits - or quit touring. The even smarter ones learn how to pace themselves, and still have a good time. Watching Bad Blake chain- smoke and swill whisky, though, I would have bet any money that Hollywood wasn't going to let him out of this movie alive.
For a while, things start looking up for Bad. He meets Jean, a rather implausibly young and attractive woman with a cute little son called Buddy. Will Bad be true to his name and blow it? Well, he almost does, when he drives his car off the road and wakes up in hospital. This is the moment of reckoning. His broken ankle will heal, the doctor says, but if he doesn't stop smoking and drinking and lose 25 pounds, he will soon die from cancer, emphysema, a stroke, or all three.
Bad then leaves the hospital and promptly goes back on the sauce. I watched the film in New York, and there were audible groans as he lit a cigarette. I wanted to cheer, which I guess shows me up as an irredeemable degenerate. I apologise: it was becoming clear, at this point in the movie, that Bad was an alcoholic, and I know very well that an alcoholic is not a good thing to be. I know this because I've known a few alcoholics.
So Bad has been warned, but will not listen. And here comes the thunderbolt. Bad is trusted to take his girlfriend's son out for the afternoon, but while he's ordering a drink, the kid wanders off.
Never mind that this happens not in, say, a war zone, but in a shopping mall. Never mind that the shopping mall is teeming with security guards, who find little Buddy in about five minutes (after pausing briefly to lecture Bad about his drinking). Never mind that little boys will sometimes wander off if you take your eyes off them for three seconds. Never mind that this could have happened to anyone, even if they'd stopped to buy a Bible instead of a bourbon. Jean is outraged and the relationship is over.
Once again, we expect Bad to crash and burn. But what actually happens is, given the politically correct climate of today's Hollywood, probably the only possible alternative: the polar opposite. Bad goes to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
I confess I have my own bias here. I'm convinced that many people are in AA for peculiar, narcissistic reasons. I've been to a few AA meetings myself, as a guest and observer, and they gave me the creeps. The people I've known who have quit drinking without AA have all seemed healthier and less neurotic, and it strikes me as sad that the only alternative to self-destruction should be a quasi-religious cult, with a Holy Book, a set of rules and its own Devil; booze continues to occupy a place of dark, exalted power in these peoples' lives.
I'm not the first to point out that we live in strangely puritanical times, in which everything is seen as dangerously 'addictive' and the road to Redemption lies in therapy. Nevertheless, I try to put my personal reservations about AA aside when people say it has saved their lives. It's pretty hard to argue with that. Yet Crazy Heart does seem to me to reflect a climate in which people are obsessed with risk- prevention, in which children are wrapped in cotton wool, and no middle ground is seen between destructive excess and puritanical self-denial.
Oddly enough, though, when Bad goes back to Jean, apologising from the bottom of his heart and promising to stay clean and sober, she rejects him. She rejects him even though he's willing to sacrifice the name he's always used and go back to the one he was christened with, which, of course, turns out to be something humble and vaguely funny: Otis.
This was puzzling to me. Maybe she's one of those women who, having got the kind of nice, safe, unthreatening modern man she thought she wanted, doesn't find him so sexy any more. Maybe she's still punishing Bad/Otis for the shopping mall incident. Then again, maybe the filmmakers are punishing him for disobeying doctors' orders. One thing's for sure: while Bad may be better off without his drinking problem, all the colour, humour and fun seem to go out of the movie along with it. Bad may have been bad, but Otis is kind of boring.
I suppose Crazy Heart is well-intentioned, and has a valid story to tell. But I wonder how many people were, like me, left pining for the kind of old Frank Sinatra movie in which an entertainer's life is one big party and people admire and envy him for it. I couldn't help trying to imagine Bad Blake as played by, say, Dean Martin or Robert Mitchum. And I couldn't help mentally writing my own alternate ending. Two of them, in fact.
In the first one, Bad eases up on the gas pedal, loses 10 or 15 pounds (he really didn't need to lose 25), gets a shave and a decent haircut - and gets the girl. In the second, he roars off into the night, as ornery as ever, clutching a bottle of bourbon and telling us all to go to hell.
The Ghost Writer (2010)
Still haunted by The Ghost of Blair
The Ghost is a film a little too haunted by reality.
In the first instance, the knowledge that The Ghost's director Roman Polanski is currently holed up in a Swiss jail awaiting possible extradition to the US to face decades-old sexual assault charges can, if you let it, insinuate its way into the viewing experience. The fact that he edited the film while incarcerated only adds to the intrigue. Maybe The Ghost captures something of Polanski's state of mind? Perhaps it articulates, at some level, the vision of a man, who like its key protagonist, the ex-British PM Adam Lang, has been exiled and demonised?
All of which is a bit distracting. Given that Polanski turned to Robert Harris's novel The Ghost almost as an afterthought, following the collapse of their original project Pompei due to the screenwriters' strike, there is definitely a risk of reading too much of Polanski's biography into this adaptation. But in the second case of real life haunting fiction, the spectre can't so easily be dismissed.
The Ghost of the endlessly playful title, is an unnamed ghost writer (played by Ewan McGregor), commissioned to write the memoirs of the former British prime minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) following the mysterious death of his former ghost writer, Mike McAra. The thing about Lang is that he is more than a little reminiscent of former PM Tony Blair. He was swept into power on a wave of personal popularity 'everyone voted for him; he wasn't a politician, he was a craze', says the ghost. He then led Britain into a massively unpopular war in Iraq. From which, judging by his exile in the bleak New England winter, he is yet to recover. He also has a super-smart, put-upon wife, played by Olivia Williams, which might or might not be Cherie Blair.
The Ghost takes this partial mirroring of Blair's own trajectory that one step further into full-on anti-Iraq War fantasy. For Lang is not only vilified by those who were once besotted with him he is also due to face trial before The Hague War Crimes Tribunal for approving so- called torture flights. Into this volatile, conspiratorial mix steps the innocent hack abroad, tasked with the job of ghosting Lang's memoirs, and unwittingly discovering the truth of Lang's rise and fall.
What saves this from being a clumsy exercise in Blair-bashing is the lightness of touch. From a decent, playful thriller, Polanski has produced a noirish, almost comic thriller. Helped by Alexandre Desplat's quirky, retro score, not to mention the twisting, turning narrative, The Ghost refuses to take itself too seriously. Despite the subject matter, despite the director's own situation, this is no brooding, high-minded exploration of corruption, of innocence lost. It's a playful, witty pastiche.
This may come as a surprise to anyone expecting the evisceration of New Labour's deposed, now despised, prince. Especially so given that Harris himself was once a close friend of the Blairs up until the Iraq War. Talking of the novel, Harris explained that it was born of 'a sort of disillusion and a sort of anger that Britain went along with something which seemed so, even at the time, to be a bridge too far and rather illogical'. This angry incredulity is expressed in an exchange the ghost writer has with an old man he meets while out for an abortive bike ride. 'He seems intelligent', the old man says of Lang, 'so why'd he get get mixed up with that damn fool in the White House?'. The ghost's reply echoes the demand for a thousand inquiries on the part of disillusioned New Labour supporters: 'That's what everyone wants to know.'
And that's the strange part, the revealing part, if you like. The Ghost's focus on a Blair-like figure as the source of the souring, the corruption of that bright New Labour, New World dawn in 1997 refuses to yield a sufficient explanation for what went wrong. As much as Harris, an author once enamoured with Blair but now disenchanted, wants to pin the downfall of New Labour on Blair, and the decision to invade Iraq, it just doesn't quite make sense. It's a 'bridge too far'; it's 'illogical'. Or rather, if it is logical, if Blair-cum-Lang really was the central reason for what went wrong, then it must play itself out as an incredible conspiracy, a Manchurian candidate for the anti-Iraq War generation.
This, to an extent, is what The Ghost does. And in doing so with its tongue often wedged firmly in its cheek, it not only satirises Blair and his cronies, but Blair-bashing itself.
Will Generation X ever grow up?
Noah Baumbach's Greenberg is a coming-of-middle-age story of the eponymous Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), whose affair with an aspiring singer, 15 years his junior, gives him a new lease of life.
Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is all New York: a neurotic, self-obsessed hypochondriac devoted to pedestrianism and kvetching. Recently dispatched from a mental hospital, he returns to his hometown, Los Angeles the land of sunshine, pool parties, farmers' markets and yoga studios to 'do nothing' while house-sitting for his brother, a Hollywood Hills hotshot who is on a six-week holiday in Vietnam with his wife and kids.
But Greenberg fails on all accounts. His sister-in-law's 20-year-old daughter throws a mayhem house party, the family dog contracts an auto- immune disorder and a $3000 vet bill, and Greenberg starts up an awkward affair with Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother's family assistant.
While Greenberg is immersed in a midlife crisis a failed rock musician turned carpenter wondering where the first half of his life went and what the hell to do with what's left of it Florence is approaching her thirties, getting more and more disillusioned as she drifts further away from her college years. Living in a tiny studio apartment, doing the rounds at open-mike nights and trying to get over a failed relationship, Florence is a ditsy, mumbling lost soul prone to putting others before herself.
Greenberg's old friends are busy running their own businesses, making fancy dress costumes for their kids and going through divorce. When explaining to an old ex that he has decided to come to LA to 'do nothing for a while', she responds 'that's brave at our age'.
Greenberg is trying to convince himself, as much as those around him, that being a temporary drifter at 40 is a worthwhile pursuit. It doesn't have much truck in this circle, where success is measured by whether or not you've managed to settle down, have kids and buy a detached house with a swimming pool. Here it's not so much the rat race as the yummy- mummy race that matters. How long can Greenberg fool himself that settling down to routines is not his dream, too?
Greenberg's misanthropic cynicism jars with the sun-drenched affluence of his brother and childhood friends. Pondering the ways of the younger generation, his gloomy best friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), who is staying in a motel as his marriage is failing, observes that youth really is wasted on the young. 'I'd go further', responds Greenberg, 'I'd say life is wasted on people'.
Greenberg's encounters with the younger generation at once confirms his despondency and salvages his hopes for a life worth living. When it comes to Florence, she is in some sense a younger version of him. Direction-less, socially fallen by the wayside, and filled with hopeless dreams of becoming a singer. But where Greenberg is curmudgeonly, bitter and egotistic, Florence is caring and lets herself be trampled on all too easily. More importantly, she has 15 years either to end up as Greenberg or to make something of her life. While, at first, this is an irritating reminder to Greenberg of what he could have made of his life, it is also a glimmer of hope that eventually rubs off on him.
The twentysomethings who take over Greenberg's house one night for a drug-fuelled party are also a painful reminder to him that the time of dreaming about the future rather than living in it is over. Their self- assuredness and sense of self-entitlement freaks him out. 'The thing about you kids', he tells them, 'is you're all kind of insensitive. I'm glad I grew up when I did because your parents were too perfect at parenting, all that Baby Mozart and Dan Zanes songs. You're so sincere and interested in things. There's a confidence in you guys that's horrifying.'
Greenberg fancies himself as a person who has learnt about life the hard way. But we don't really get to know much about his past apart from the fact that he blew his chance at a record deal and from there, it seems, everything went downhill.
Mainly, Greenberg comes across as a Woody Allen with a humour failure, a New Yorker who hates Manhattan. He channels his anger into petty letters of complaints to 'evil corporations': American Airlines' seats don't recline properly, Pet-Taxis' floors are too hard, Starbucks' has 'manufactured culture out of fast food'.
Greenberg is a film that explores tensions between genders, generations and lifestyles. The juxtaposition between New York and LA is pivotal, too. Baumbach wants to challenge the image of LA as a vacuous, celebrity-fixated, silicone-scape and presents it as a real city, a place where you can raise a family and lead a normal life within easy reach of natural beauty. By contrast, when Woody Allen's character Alvy Singer follows his lover to LA in Annie Hall, he is appalled by the health-conscious, mantra-chanting Californians and can't wait to get back to the Big Apple. Here, however, LA is Greenberg's path to happiness.
Greenberg is a believable and considered film about the ageing Generation X, preoccupied with self-fulfilment, therapy and political correctness. It shows a world filled with the people that the term 'the worried well' was invented for. But you get the feeling that rather than recognising the limits that this navel-gazing generation's lifestyle has come up against, Baumbach is trying to salvage it.
Lymelife: infected by the American Dream
Derick Martini's Lymelife is a funny and profoundly moving portrait of the American family. The film examines the highs and lows of those trying to fulfil the American dream - from the thrill of success to the devastating feeling of personal failure.
Set in Long Island in the 1970s, the film exposes the dark side of what looks like a suburban paradise, tracking the ups and downs of two dysfunctional families living through this tumultuous decade. The story revolves around the shy, awkward, 15-year-old Scott (Rory Culkin), whose family is enclosed in a world of pessimism and regret whilst an outbreak of Lyme disease threatens their community.
Scott's father Mickey (Alec Baldwin) is a workaholic determined to be, as he puts it, a 'chaser', not a loser. Mickey's wife Brenda (Jill Hennessy) is forced to endure the burden of his desperate need for success pushing the couple to the edge of divorce. In the midst of all this turmoil, Scott develops a crush on his next-door neighbour, Adrianna (Emma Roberts). She seems to be the only person in the world who is sympathetic to Scott's sensitivity as she also comes from a troubled family. Her depressed mother Melissa (Cynthia Nixon) is caught up in a clandestine love affair and her father Charlie (Timothy Hutton) is slowly losing his battle against Lyme disease.
True, Lymelife brings to mind several other coming-of-age indie flicks and the central story geeky boy from weird family in American suburb falls in love with the girl next door is not very original. Still, Lymelife is far from a run-of-the-mill Sundance contender. The exceptional performances by the blue-chip cast, combined with a gritty narrative, raises it above the level of the average independent movie.
Take the scene where Mickey and Brenda are arguing over how to punish Scott for brutally beating up a school mate (a real bully who, frankly, deserved the thrashing). Here, a typical parental conflict escalates into a whirlwind of vulgar language, animated body language and frustrated facial expressions, making it a deeply moving scene. It's a very realistic moment and the audience is compelled to consider how these kinds of domestic scenes affect innocent children. In Lymelife, Scott and Adrianna are suffering from their parents' shattering marriages, whilst trying to adjust to the frightening world of adulthood.
The dark side of the film is made bearable by Martini's use of double entendres and wit, smoothing over some of the choking intensity. This is executed through the endless disputes and futile quarrels between Scott's parents, reducing them to childlike behaviour and leading to roaring moments of laughter both on and off the screen. However, this also sometimes detracts from the seriousness of the film and the message it tries to convey.
Overall, Martini has drawn from a deep well of the kinds of meaningful people, circumstances and events that we are all bound to encounter at some point of our lives. Martini has admitted that the film is 'more than a semi-autobiography', featuring events that occurred in his childhood, including a family friend contracting Lyme disease.
In the film, the aggressive outbreak of Lyme disease spreads anxiousness and paranoia - as it did in real life in 1970s America. After contracting the disease, Charlie slowly drifts away from reality into an unknown and lonely world, triggering obsessive behaviour. This is painful to watch as we witness a man stripped of his pride and exposed to all kinds of humiliations. Hutton captures well the nervous movements and erratic behaviour of a person afflicted by the illness; his performance is compelling and at the same time distressing.
In Lymelife, the outbreak of Lyme disease is also an extended metaphor. Just like epidemics will have corrosive effects if an illness goes untreated, Martini seems to be saying, so rifts will emerge in relationships if the people involved do not confront their problems. In the film, the effects are evident: failed marriages, deep distrust, emotional damage.
Lyme disease is transmitted by a bite from a blood-sucking parasite which normally lives on deer. In a scene in the film, a herd of deer is galloping freely in the woods. They are meant to symbolise the desire of Matt and Adrianna and countless other children to run away from their intolerable lives. But then, the woods become more dense, confining the movement of the deer just like Matt and Adrianna are blocked by the obstacles set up by the circumstances of their families and community.
Lymelife shows the effect that individuals' pursuit of success and happiness can have on the people around them. Here, it is Mickey's family that pays the price for his desperate attempts at chasing the American Dream. Behind the idyllic white picket fences of American suburbia lurks a not so black-and-white world that Martini exposes in an engaging and moving way.